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Tossing Money to Tolls Could Secure Road Funds

As the governor’s new budget proposal shifts money away from transportation projects, a Santa Monica-based Libertarian think tank has released a new study proposing changes to the way San Diego County highway projects are financed.

The report, released by the Reason Foundation on Jan. 20, details how large-scale projects funded entirely or largely with revenues generated from toll roads, could be developed to add highway capacity that would otherwise never have been built.

Robert Poole, author of the study and a former transportation adviser for the last four presidential administrations, said San Diego could add onto its existing roads by developing high-occupancy toll lanes, which could generate funding for transportation projects.

The San Diego Association of Governments, the region’s planning agency, has plans for $2.4 billion worth of managed lanes, or high-occupancy toll lanes, on the major north-south freeways, including Interstates 5, 15 and 805 and, possibly, state Route 52.

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But Poole recommends expanding on that plan, through partnerships with the private sector, similar to an Assembly Bill in 1989 authorizing the California Department of Transportation to enter into agreements with private entities for the development, construction and operation of four demonstration transportation projects at private sector expense and without the use of state funds.

“Instead of just four isolated managed lanes (freeways), there would be a lot more benefits if they covered the entire freeway system,” Poole said.

Reason’s report recommends a larger network of $10.2 billion worth of interconnected managed lanes on I-15, and state Routes 52, 54, 94, 125 and 163, of which 63 percent would be covered by toll fees, with taxpayers and traditional funding picking up the remaining costs.

“People know there is a severe crisis,” Poole said. “We need new revenue sources, we need alternatives. The crisis is very urgent.”

The plan would guarantee congestion-free travel on a much larger portion of freeways and permit high-speed bus service throughout the densest portions of the San Diego metro area, according to the report.

“We call it congestion insurance,” Poole said. “A network over the whole region would provide a guideway for regionwide express bus service.”

Solo drivers would pay to drive on the managed lanes, commonly known as car-pool lanes, but the lanes would remain free for van pools, buses and emergency vehicles.

The money generated from the toll roads would go back into the region to provide funding for transportation infrastructure, Poole said.

San Diego was one of the first areas in the country to implement HOV lanes, with the creation of the I-15 FasTrak program, an 8-mile, two-lane reversible, high-occupancy-vehicle road from Kearny Mesa to Carmel Mountain Ranch.

For vehicles with only a driver, the toll fees typically range from 50 cents (when there’s little traffic on I-15) to $4, but can go as high as $8, depending on the traffic conditions, said Pedro Orso-Delgado, the Caltrans district director for San Diego and parts of Imperial County.

However, money generated from the I-15 express lanes is designated to fund bus rapid transit and park-and-ride lots, Orso-Delgado said.

As a result of AB 680, SR-125 South, which connects SR-54 in Bonita with SR-905 near the Otay Mesa border, is being constructed under a public/private venture among Chula Vista-based California Transportation Ventures, Inc., Caltrans and Sandag.

The road is slated for completion in October 2006.

The private-public partnership is the first of its kind in San Diego County, said Greg Hulsizer, the chief executive officer of California Transportation Ventures, a worldwide developer of toll roads.

The expansion of SR-125, which entails 12.5 miles of new highway, has been part of California’s planned freeway system since 1959, but was never able to be built because of the inability to find money, Hulsizer said.

In 1991, California Transportation Ventures was awarded a 35-year franchise to build, operate and maintain the highway, then return it to Caltrans at the end of the term.

“The concept of toll roads here in California, particularly in Southern California, has really taken off,” Hulsizer said. “It’s pretty rare (to have a private/public partnership), but given the monumental deficit that we are experiencing in California, and with the governor, who wants to take those Prop. 42 moneys and use them to balance the budget , there has to be a way to close the gap.”

Hulsizer said that with his corporation’s efforts, the public will be able to escape some of the gridlock that has plagued the Chula Vista and Bonita area for many years.

“What we are all about is putting smiles on people’s faces in their cars, which has been a long time since we have seen that,” Hulsizer said. “We are giving them a way to escape from gridlock. If we can promise them a free-flow driving experience every time that’s reliable, then that has value. If we can give them that service, they will use us on a regular basis.”

Orso-Delgado said toll roads, while they are one way to augment the funding, are not the only answer to San Diego’s traffic congestion.

“It becomes a question of choice (for drivers),” he said. “We have given those residents a choice.”

Garry Bonelli, the communications director for Sandag, said the agency is looking at toll roads as a possibility to secure financing when other means are not available.

“It’s one of the tools in the toolbox,” he said. “We are trying to always explore new ways to find funding.”

But Bonelli added that the problem with toll roads is that it may not be affordable for many commuters.

“From a commuters’ standpoint, we have to look at equity,” Bonelli said. “Is that equitable for everyone? Rich people, they can afford this, but will the average person?”

Sandag is looking at the possibility of a toll road from I-15 north of Escondido to Riverside County.

“We would like to expand that area, but we don’t have the money,” Bonelli said, adding that a toll road might be able to provide the funding.

In the last eight years, car-poolers on I-15 have increased by 139 percent, to more than 18,000, a likely result of the managed lanes, Bonelli said.

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