'Feeways' Too Much for Traffic to Bear? : New Tollways Shouldn't Drive Cost Up Any Further

The passage of Propositions 108 and 111 last month can help provide funds to meet some of Orange County's critical freeway needs. But growing traffic congestion, and the continued scarcity of adequate road money, makes the success of three tollways proposed for Orange County all the more important.

Success for the new transportation corridors may be gauged in several ways. One measure of that is simply in getting them built. Another is how widely they will be used, which will be determined largely by the price of tolls.

When the tollways were first proposed more than three years ago, the thinking was that the tolls could be kept relatively low, at about $1 per car per trip. But now those estimates are going up.

In a report issued about three weeks ago, a study done for the county's transportation corridor agencies by a private consulting firm gave agency directors the optimistic conclusion that the tollways were financially feasible. But there was a catch: The conclusion was based on a substantial increase in what motorists will have to pay to ride the San Joaquin Hills, Eastern or Foothill Transportation corridors.

The cost now is being figured at anywhere between $20 to $45 a week to make five round trips, depending on which tollway is used. Consultants say motorists will be willing to pay between $2 and $2.25 each way on the 15-mile San Joaquin Hills tollway, between $3.75 and $4.40 on the 30-mile Foothill Corridor and $2.50 to $3.25 on the 23-mile Eastern tollway.

Although an earlier survey indicated that ridership on the Foothill and Eastern tollways would drop if the toll exceed $1.50, the new survey based its conclusions on a broader segment of the public, and it takes into account Orange County's comparative economic strength. The new estimates prompted John Cox, chairman of the San Joaquin Hills Corridor Agency board, to say, "We thought our rates could be higher because of the higher income out here."

That approach may be all right for setting prices at a trendy restaurant in the South County, but is it the way to determine toll rates on a public highway? Middle- and lower-income motorists shouldn't be priced off the roads, and these new projected tolls are high enough to raise the concern that they might be.

Toll roads are gaining increasing acceptance across the nation because of traffic and a shortage of financing for new road construction. But most of the new toll roads opened recently around the country have tolls set between 8 and 9 cents per mile. The Orange County study had toll projections ranging from 8 to 20 cents per mile.

It is difficult to accurately compare Orange County's projected toll charges with those now in existence elsewhere because tolls can vary, depending on costs. But tolls traditionally have been based on what it costs to build, maintain and finance new tollways, not on whatever the traffic will bear. To set prices on the latter would be highway robbery.

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