Toll roads can be a bumpy ride
By Jason Hoppin, Monterey County Herald
Castroville >> California’s first ventures into the world of privately-funded freeways have been a bumpy ride.
Connecting jobs centers in Orange County to cheaper housing in Riverside County, the 10-mile 91 Express Lanes were built in the middle of an existing public freeway, offering drivers four lanes to bypass — at a price — Southern California’s notorious gridlock.
Operated by California Private Transportation Corp., the road was slow to draw motorists and included a controversial “non-compete” clause, which limited the government’s ability to make roadway improvements elsewhere, sparking lawsuits and motorist outrage. Eventually, Orange County transportation officials bought out the road.
Other proposals never made it off the drawing board after opposition from local government and environmentalists. The bonds used to build another Orange County toll road were once downgraded to junk status. And another toll road near the U.S.-Mexico border went bankrupt in 2010, and is now owned by a regional governing body.
“There are a lot of places in California where they’ve built these roads, and then it didn’t really work so well,” said Martin Wachs, a UCLA-based transportation expert and former head of UC Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies.
But Wachs points out that toll roads have deep roots in U.S. history, dating back to Colonial times when the phrase “turnpike” arose to describe pay roads controlled by a gate. After an era of “freeways,” many planners say going back to toll roads is the future, given the ongoing declines in gas tax revenues needed to meet the nation’s infrastructure needs.
“We’re going to have to face up to new ways of paying for our roads, because the old ways are not producing enough money, and the roads are getting to be in poorer and poorer condition,” Wachs said.
California began experimenting with toll roads in the 1980s, when more fuel-efficient cars were one reason gas-tax dependent transportation funding began to shrink. Public-private toll roads were floated as a way to keep up with demand.
Many of the roads off to rocky starts have turned things around. Travel on the 91 Express Lanes has inched steadily higher, and the excess toll revenues have helped pay for improvements elsewhere.
“Our commitment was to put any excess revenue, beyond paying off the bonds, to improve the free lanes,” said Joel Zlotnik, a spokesman for the Orange County Transportation Agency.
But pay-to-play driving has always drawn charges that it is elitist and encourages sprawl. Wachs pointed out toll roads could help reduce congestion on free roads, but those kinds of concerns, along with environmental opposition, helped kill a once-proposed 40-mile road between Antioch and Sunol in the East Bay.
The proposed Highway 156 toll road between Castroville and Prunedale would route drivers through poor neighborhoods. Castroville earns less and has higher unemployment than the rest of the county, with one in five residents living below the federal poverty line.
While the Transportation Agency for Monterey County hasn’t finalized what the road would cost motorists, pricing on other tolls roads approaches $1 per mile during peak commutes, though most offer a variety of pricing options.
While many toll roads are planned to go free once the bonds are paid off, financial problems at some have pushed that date further into the future. The agency that oversees Orange County’s San Juan Hills toll road, which cuts through wealthy coastal mountains, once saw the road’s bonds downgraded to junk status. They are now being refinanced due to poor ridership and revenue, a move that extends the life of the bonds.
In Illinois and Indiana, truck drivers have seen their tolls hiked in recent years. And poor ridership has plagued a 130-mile Texas toll road between Austin and San Antonio, with that road’s debt recently restructured as well.
Part of the problem is that people are driving less. The amount of miles the average American drives each year has fallen for eight years in a row, a shift partly driven by changing work habits. In Monterey County, for example, the number of people working from home doubled between 2005 and 2010, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Wachs predicts California will continue exploring toll roads, pointing out they are more popular on the East Coast and in other parts of the world, including Indonesia and China, are one of the main methods of building new roads.
“Private operators are very common throughout the rest of the world,” Wachs said.
But he cautioned that any government agency wanting to build one should hire a good lawyer to craft an airtight deal. The advantage of public-private partnerships, Wachs said, is that it shifts the financial risk onto private operators.
“The critical question when you create these public private partnership is who’s responsible for the risk,” Wachs said.