State Steering Toward Green Light on Test of Toll Roads
Faced with a public outcry over worsening traffic congestion and short of funds to help relieve it, the Legislature seems ready to set aside, at least on an experimental basis, its traditional reluctance to building toll roads.
Although an Assembly-passed measure authorizing counties statewide to build toll roads appears headed for trouble in the Senate, both houses of the Legislature already have approved separate bills that would permit construction of as many as three toll roads in Orange County.
Those approvals represent the furthest progress to date for legislation to supplement California’s traditional freeway system with turnpikes of the kind common in the East. And with Gov. George Deukmejian indicating that he may support the idea, Orange County officials say the state’s first public toll roads could be carrying Southland traffic by the early 1990s.
Such a prospect, even if limited to Orange County, horrifies some who believe that freeways are a birthright in a California culture that grew up around the automobile and the mobility it has provided.
“Toll roads are a symbol of Eastern decadence,” Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) said in an interview. “This is the renaissance state, where we don’t make people stop their car and pay money to use the road. It’s a form of highway robbery.”
Assemblyman Rusty Areias (D-Los Banos), another fervent opponent, calls toll roads a “U-turn to yesterday.” Assemblywoman Delaine Eastin (D-Union City) insists that the notion is “un-Californian.”
David Scharlach, a Sacramento lobbyist for the Automobile Club of Southern California, suggests that the state’s tax-financed freeway system will deteriorate if toll roads are built as an alternative.
“To set up toll roads sets up two systems of highways, one for those who can afford to pay the tolls and one for those who can’t,” Scharlach said. “Those who can afford a new, sleek highway system will pay the toll and use it. Those who can’t will be relegated to what we believe will be a second-class road system.”
But so far this year, supporters of toll roads have outnumbered opponents in the Legislature. Even some who have criticized the idea have reluctantly voted for it. The Assembly has approved two bills, one allowing any California county to build toll roads, and the other granting that permission only to Orange County.
The Senate, which several times in recent years has rejected toll road proposals, passed a measure June 11 allowing two agencies formed by a group of Orange County cities and the county government to build turnpikes.
Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim), author of the Senate-passed bill, said he doubts that the upper house will approve the bill by Assemblyman Nolan Frizzelle (R-Huntington Beach) to allow toll roads statewide. Frizzelle’s bill includes a highly controversial provision allowing private corporations to build and operate the roads. Besides, Seymour pointed out, too many senators don’t want toll roads in their districts.
Sen. Wadie Deddeh (D-Chula Vista), chairman of the Transportation Committee, agreed that neither his committee nor the full Senate is likely to support the widespread use of toll roads. But Deddeh said he supports, “with a great deal of reluctance,” experimenting with toll roads in Orange County.
“We are in a desperate situation,” Deddeh said of the state’s transportation system. “If we do not look at every possibility, every avenue, every innovation, we are going to be in serious trouble.”
Seymour said Orange County has no choice but to turn to toll roads. With the lion’s share of state funds for the county’s projects going to rebuilding and widening the Santa Ana Freeway, little money is left for new highways needed to relieve existing congestion and accommodate expected new development, he said.
“This is really an ace-in-the-hole concept,” Seymour said. “This is the card you play when you’ve played every other card in your hand.”
Stan Oftelie, executive director of the Orange County Transportation Commission, said that if toll roads are “un-Californian,” they may be “truly Orange Countian.”
‘The User Pays’
“This fits with the idea that the user pays--if you want a better service and you’re willing to pay for it, the opportunity to buy it may be there,” Oftelie said. “It may fit in with Orange County’s entrepreneurial attitude.”
Gov. George Deukmejian has yet to take an official position on any of the toll road bills. But the Republican governor hinted recently that he might go along with the concept if the new roads are built parallel to existing freeways.
“We’d have to wait and see what happens to this proposal in the Legislature and what its final form is before making a final decision,” Deukmejian said in an interview June 8 with a handful of reporters. “If it does leave it up to the motorist and they can make the choice, freely and voluntarily, and if they want to pay to ride on a particular stretch of highway, I don’t think that would bother me too much.”
While the bills by Frizzelle and Seymour require that toll roads be parallel to free roads, the term “parallel” is not defined in the legislation. The three routes envisioned by Orange County planners do not run directly alongside existing freeways.
One of the routes--the proposed Foothill roadway--is roughly parallel but several miles east of the Santa Ana Freeway, running from the City of Orange to the San Diego County line. Another route, the Eastern corridor, connects the Riverside Freeway in eastern Orange County to the Santa Ana Freeway in Irvine, cutting through a largely undeveloped area. A third, the San Joaquin corridor, runs through the coastal foothills, creating a short-cut alternative to the San Diego Freeway between Costa Mesa and San Juan Capistrano.
Under the law now, only the state Department of Transportation can build toll roads or bridges, and there are 10 publicly owned toll bridges in California.
But in the 1930s, when many Eastern states began building extensive networks of toll roads, California chose to finance its freeway system through the state gasoline tax. The state flirted briefly with the idea of toll roads in 1951 and 1952. One proposal called for a tollway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
But the idea was never accepted. The result has been a system of free highways widely regarded as the best in the nation, if not the world.
Today, the state gasoline tax stands at nine cents per gallon, enough to provide about $1.1 billion a year for highway projects. (Motorists also pay another nine cents per gallon in federal taxes, plus a state sales tax on their purchase.)
Several rapidly growing California counties say their highway needs are outstripping their share of the gas tax revenue, which is distributed by the California Transportation Commission. Santa Clara, Alameda and Fresno county voters have passed ballot measures increasing the sales tax to pay for roads in those counties.
Orange County voters overwhelmingly rejected such a tax increase in 1984, prompting transportation officials there to look elsewhere for the estimated $1 billion it will cost to build the three major proposed roads. Three years ago, the Legislature gave the county the power to collect special fees on building permits--as much as $1,200 per home--to help finance the roads.
Earlier this year, President Reagan signed legislation passed by Congress which lifted, for an Orange County pilot project, a longstanding prohibition on collecting tolls on highways financed in part by federal funds.