Toll Lanes as Congestion Management: Mobility for the Wealthy Few

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Converting freeway lanes to tollways in the name of congestion management, without viable transit alternatives, will only reduce mobility for the majority in exchange for wealthy drivers getting to work on time. UPDATE: California Department of Transportation officials announced in July 2014 that they will replace carpool lanes on Interstate 405 in Orange County with paid lanes, despite the decision in December 2013 from Orange County Transportation Authority board members to not support toll lanes. 

Orange County, California trafficOrange County, California I-405 Toll Lanes Proposal: Taxpayer-Funded Transportation for the Few

By Jack Eidt, Director, Wild Heritage Planners

Originally Published in the Voice of OC

Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) seems to be heading toward a decision to betray the voters who re-approved Measure M in 2006, putting forth an ill-advised scheme to convert two lanes on the I-405 freeway to “Express” toll lanes. This is one of three freeway-widening alternatives presented by the transportation authority, none with but a nominal mention of public transit optimization and sustainable re-imagination of our sprawling overpopulated metropolitan area facing significant threats to the climate from automobile-generated greenhouse gases. We, as a region and a society, demand more sustainable alternatives.

Staff and management have expressed preference for the High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) alternative because it provides additional capacity while allowing for Express Lanes that solo drivers could utilize for a price, generating a revenue stream used to fund the added construction costs as well as future improvements. Okay, a small minority will get to work on time, and the rest of us? There is no plan. No light rail, only slight mention of bus rapid transit with park-and-ride lots, and silence about connecting routes from the Metrolink, Amtrak, and High-Speed Rail corridor.

Half-Cent Sales Tax Measure M: Toll Road Funding Mechanism?

The information submitted to voters on the one-half-cent sales tax Measure M 2006 renewal stated the money could only be spent on designated transportation projects, and that voters would need to approve any changes.

In the ballot information provided, freeway projects were detailed at length. Tolls were never mentioned. They also guaranteed that:

Any significant proposed changes to the Plan must be approved by the Taxpayer Oversight Committee and ratified by a majority of voters.

Now OCTA CEO Will Kempton explained in official-double-speak that using Measure M money to build toll lanes honors that commitment by providing one additional general purpose lane. In fact, the new free lane will only replace the formerly free carpool lane, while the new lanes, paid for primarily with Measure M taxpayer money, will now be subject to transponders and tolls.

The Express lanes could only be used by drivers who pay to rent transponders, although carpool vehicles with three or more people would have reduced tolls some of the time, and no tolls frequently, similar to the pricing on the S.R. 91 Express Lanes.

Transit planners insist that the Express Lanes will increase capacity more than adding free lanes to the freeway, based on experience on the 91 Express lanes. Yet critics suspect this is one more reality-challenging scheme to bail out the failed S.R. 73 San Joaquin Hills toll road – the insolvent funding experiment that facilitated sprawling planned community developments serviced by overpriced and underutilized transportation facilities, thus saddled with growing and lengthening debt.

taken from a supposed eco preserve in Orange County, California73 Toll Road: Developer-Politician-Created, Empty and Insolvent

Look at the financial statements for the 73 toll road, and you will see that total debt continues to grow as the toll road fails to come anywhere close to the projected usage.

By the middle of 2011, traffic on the toll roads was only 42.5% of the projected volume, which had anticipated almost 50 million annual trips, and instead was stagnating below 25 million annual trips. As tolls have continued to rise, drivers have chosen to return to the freeways, so we have 5.5 million fewer trips per year on this failed experiment than in 2007.

In 2003 total debt was $1.69 billion, with all bonds scheduled to be paid off by 2036. By June 2011, the total debt had increased by $390 million, with a total debt now close to $2.1 billion.  Because the number of cars using the road and the revenue continues to fail to meet projections, the toll road agency has been unable to meet its bond payment schedules. Instead it keeps refinancing, increasing, and extending the debt. Now the bonds are not scheduled to be paid off for another six years until 2042.

Also, the bleeding 73 toll road received a cash transfusion of $30 million a year for four years, for a total of $120 million in a dubious transfer from the Foothill/Eastern toll roads, which have not been hemorrhaging cash as badly as the 73. That money was called a prepayment for future losses that the 73 would allegedly suffer to its revenue when the S.R. 241 Foothill South Extension was completed. Now that the 241 South is (for now) dead, that $120 million is another obligation that needs to be repaid some day in the distant future.

Meanwhile, debt still piles up, as the San Joaquin toll road agency plunges further into the red every year instead of paying down the bonds. The 2012 Agency budget services $32 million of principal on existing debt, but adds $55,706,000 in new additional debt. It more resembles a Ponzi scheme than “creative” transportation financing, with the driving public left with the tab.

Will new toll lanes on the 405 be more like the 91 Express Lanes, where some evidence exists that toll lanes actually increase throughput? Or will they be closer to the dismal failure of the 73 Toll Road?

Ridership and Revenue Benefits: Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

It appears that OCTA’s Environmental Impact Report optimistically evaluates project benefits (ridership and toll revenue) while ignoring impacts on the climate (single-occupied fossil-fueled cars driving instead of providing viable mass transit alternatives for the 405 corridor) and equity (low-income drivers pay tax but cannot afford tolls). Understand that providing excess freeway capacity will only inspire more cars to fill the roads, with a long-term impact of escalating congestion and lost travel time improvements for mixed-flow travelers. Widening freeways, no matter the pricing scheme, will never solve long-term gridlock.

Conversion of free 2+person carpool lanes to HOT lanes will reduce the incentive to use transit or carpool, effectively transferring travel time benefits from 2+ carpoolers to those willing to pay. Moreover, political considerations have forced the addition of two intermediate entrance points to the proposed Express Lanes, which will lower capacity and slow free-flow speeds. The argument that by charging tolls drivers will be forced to use alternatives only makes sense when there are alternatives. The 405 has none.

OCTA’s funding logic implies conversion to HOT lanes would generate revenue to convert more carpool lanes to toll, continuing to marginalize travel times for the majority of freeway users in favor of the few who pay. Hence, as proposed, this HOT lane conversion would have only short-term benefits with significant long-term challenges that will make it difficult to achieve the AB 32 and SB 375 required reductions in greenhouse gases by 2050. And traffic will continue to be a nightmare for most of us.

Suburban Re-Imagination with Public Transit and Equitable Congestion Management

If OCTA wants to change the projects that were promised under Measure M, they have a legal obligation to return to the voters for their approval, not just have a vote of their 18 board members.

Toll lanes might be acceptable to voters if OCTA can demonstrate to the community that their 405 project alternatives:

  • Fully integrate and expand express buses, vanpools, carpools and other public transit to maximize benefits for the majority.
  • Analyze how low-income commuters in Southern California, already burdened by extremely high combined costs for transportation and housing, can benefit from the network, and
  • Ensure that this multi-billion dollar transportation project meets the Southern California Sustainable Communities Strategy targets mandated by SB 375, significantly reducing greenhouse gases and the vehicle miles traveled by the average commuter.

Consider the Los Angeles experiment with converting car pool lanes to Express lanes on the I-110 and I-10, including a significant expansion of transit alternatives as part of the program, with measures that (somewhat) mitigate the cost of transponders for lower-income commuters. This implemented in a region planning construction of twelve key mass transit lines projects in the next ten years, combined with designing urban and suburban neighborhoods for people as well as cars, trains, bicycles, and public open spaces.

Solutions exist to optimize our transportation network and re-imagine our cities, while serving the diverse needs of the populace and protecting our climate. The question is: when will Orange County’s decision-makers tackle the inevitable challenge of providing mass transit alternatives for the 405 corridor?

Jack Eidt is Director of Wild Heritage Planners and Editor of WilderUtopia.com. Gus Ayer contributed to this piece.

Photo Credit – Ian Parker – 73 Toll Road – Evanescent Light

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About Jack Eidt

Novelist, urban theorist, and environmental journalist, Jack Eidt careens down human-nature's all consuming one-way highway to its inevitable conclusion -- Wilder Utopia. He co-founded Wild Heritage Planners, based out of Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at jack (dot) eidt (at) wilderutopia (dot) com. Follow him on Twitter @WilderUtopia and @JackEidt