Gov. to Seek New Freeway Toll Lanes

Times Staff Writers

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will propose today adding special toll lanes -- some exclusively for trucks -- to California's most congested freeways, and speeding their construction by easing environmental reviews.

The toll proposal is only part of a multibillion-dollar public works agenda the governor will unveil during his annual State of the State speech, administration officials said Wednesday. But it would have a direct impact on the quality of life for millions of Californians and challenge their long-standing aversion to toll lanes.

Among consideration are projects that call for building a dedicated truck lane on the Long Beach Freeway, leading to the busy ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, and adding a toll lane for all vehicles on Interstate 680 in the Bay Area, where rates would vary depending on the time of day and degree of congestion. But local officials would make the final decisions if the plans were approved by the Legislature.

Schwarzenegger will ask lawmakers -- and eventually voters -- to approve selling more than $25 billion in bonds over the next five years to pay for improvements to the state's roads, ports, levees and schools. Those bonds would be the first part of a 10- to 20-year plan that could include later returning to voters for approval to borrow tens of billions more.

State Senate Leader Don Perata (D-Oakland) said the first of several rounds of borrowing proposals hammered out between lawmakers and the governor could appear before voters in June.

"Everything goes on the table," Perata said. "Toll roads. You name it ... things that have been anathema to Democrats in the past; it is a new day."

Toll roads have had limited success in California, where the "freeway" is sacrosanct and drivers have resisted paying to use roads. Express toll lanes on the congested Riverside Freeway have proved popular with drivers. But only two months ago, Orange County officials had to approve a $1.1-billion bailout plan to keep the decade-old, 16-mile San Joaquin Hills toll road from defaulting on its bond payments because traffic on the route has been so light.

Even so, there has been a surge of interest in building toll lanes in California and nationwide as states look for creative ways to ease traffic congestion without busting their budgets. Business organizations in California and elsewhere have proposed helping pay for construction of the roads -- and even signing contracts committing to use them -- if the state can help get them built quickly.

"There is a lot of new interest in these public-private partnerships," said Jim Reed, transportation director of the National Conference of State Legislatures. "I think a lot of the issues that came up with the Orange County experience have been ironed out."

Reed said that no truck-only toll lanes have been built yet but that Georgia, Virginia and Texas are all looking at them.

Last January, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority approved a controversial $5.5-billion plan to add four truck-only lanes to the Long Beach Freeway, from the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex to the rail yards east of downtown Los Angeles.

Under the plan, which critics contend would cause too much pollution, some of the truck lanes could be elevated. But the cash-strapped authority hasn't even been able to scrape together the $30 million needed for an environmental review.

MTA officials were pleased to learn of the Schwarzenegger administration's interest in truck-only lanes on the Long Beach Freeway.

"We don't know what the governor is going to say," MTA spokesman Marc Littman said Wednesday, "but any additional revenues that would be committed to the movement of goods in Los Angeles County would be welcome."

While administration officials cite the widening of the Long Beach Freeway and I-680 as projects the bond money could fund, specifics of where toll lanes would go, how construction costs would be divvied up and what the tolls would be have yet to be worked out.

Many of those decisions would be left up to local agencies and the businesses using the lanes. The state's role would be to make money available and to work on ways to speed the environmental reviews on each project. Under the administration plan, voters would need to sign off on any changes to the environmental review process.

Support for scaling back environmental law in limited ways has grown in recent months in the state Capitol. In hearings late last year, some legislators talked of streamlining such laws when undertaking flood-control projects including levee repair.

The Schwarzenegger administration has a working group studying the issue as it relates to some housing and transportation projects. Perata has proposed legislation to limit environmental review when developers embark on so-called infill projects, where they build in vacant areas of otherwise urban parts of the state.

But speeding environmental reviews for road projects, which typically raise concerns about increasing air pollution and sprawl, could prove more controversial. Administration officials hope to offset those concerns by earmarking some of the bond money for new programs to fight pollution.

Developing a rate structure for use of the roads is another challenge.

Trucking companies generally oppose toll lanes. However, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) and others raised the possibility of using fees on shipping containers unloaded at California's ports as a way to pay for some of the construction.

Meanwhile, Assembly Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, while agreeing that more must be spent on transportation, said lawmakers should also consider reopening talks about building a Central California canal. That would let the state move water past the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and more directly to farmland and cities to the south. Voters rejected a peripheral canal proposal in 1982.

"I think you have to put it all on the table," McCarthy said.

Nunez was noncommittal about such a proposal, which has faced opposition from some environmentalists, particularly in Northern California.

One thing McCarthy does not want on the table is a tax increase to pay back the infrastructure bonds. Democrats, however, said new taxes will have to be part of the discussion.

Perata, the Senate leader, refused to rule out a tax increase, saying: "Only a fool would do that, and I'm just this side of being a fool."

Times staff writer Deborah Schoch contributed to this report from Long Beach.

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