Two months ago my wife and I spent our somewhat delayed honeymoon in Portugal. For the first week we relied on the excellent Portugese passenger rail network, from the intercity Alfa Pendular high speed trains to the very useful and reliable metro trains in Porto and Lisboa.
But we also wanted to get off the beaten path and see some of the more out-of-the-way sights that Portugal had to offer. So we rented a SEAT Ibiza and spent the second week driving around the Alentejo and the Algarve.
Our travels included drives on the Portuguese superhighway network – the auto-estradas. Most of them were toll roads, operated by private concessionaires such as Brisa. At a portagens (toll plaza) such as that shown at right on the A2 Auto-Estrada do Sul, you paid the toll and went on to your destination, just like you would crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. The overall toll to get from the Algarve to Lisboa was €18, about $25.
As I paid my toll and continued my trip, I started to think about how this model could be imported to California. We already have implemented high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes on the 91 freeway in Orange County, and soon to be implemented on other carpool lanes around SoCal.
But that is no longer enough. In an era of persistent budget crises, where California desperately needs to fund the construction and ongoing operations of mass transit, where dependence on the automobile and the airplane for intrastate travel is costing us money and hurting economic growth, not to mention the environmental consequences of such travel, it is time we explored alternatives. We need to pay for everything from keeping existing bus routes open to building a high speed train. And that should lead us to look at the freeways, and ask ourselves if they really should remain free.
As we who have been involved in transit advocacy are well aware, there is nothing free about the freeway. Freeways do not recoup their operating costs, and are heavily subsidized by federal, state, and local tax dollars. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. California and the US government agreed in the 1950s and 1960s that subsidized freeways were essential to economic growth and security. Subsidizing freeways was the right move, assuming you accepted the logic of sprawl.
But the 2010s are not going to resemble the 1950s and 1960s. There is no longer any justification for subsidizing freeways – particularly the intercity routes – while we starve the mass transit systems that will serve as the basis of economic prosperity and growth for the rest of this century.
California needs a higher gas tax, no doubt about it. But we should also implement tolls on several of the state’s freeways to help pay for mass transit. There is no good reason why someone should be able to drive from the Bay Area to SoCal on Interstate 5 without coughing up a couple bucks.
That route is the best, first place to implement a toll policy on superhighways. We ought to be charging $25-$30 to drive between Tracy and Santa Clarita on Interstate 5. That route is an ideal location to start implementing tolled superhighway policy. It primarily serves long-distance travelers and freight. The annual average daily traffic (AADT) on I-5 in this section is roughly 33,000. If we charged a $30 toll to drive that section of I-5 the state could take in as much as $361.35 million a year, minus the costs of collecting the tolls. That’s a pretty damn significant chunk of change. Sure, the toll might cut down the AADT, but an overall collection rate in the range of $100-$200 million is still very plausible.
We should consider implementing such tolls on other major intercity routes:
• I-15 between Victorville and the Nevada State Line (people driving to and from Vegas should be paying through the nose, since they’re going to be spending a lot more money outside the state)
• I-40 between Barstow and the Arizona State Line
• I-10 between Beaumont and the Arizona State Line
• I-80 between Auburn and the Nevada State Line
• US-50 between Placerville and South Lake Tahoe
• I-5 between Redding and the Oregon State Line
• US-101 between King City and Paso Robles, and again between Santa Maria and Goleta
• CA-46 between Paso Robles and Lost Hills
And many other routes. At this initial stage I would argue for staying away from tolling urban freeways and other key routes, such as Highway 99, at least until we have more robust alternatives in place.
The toll collection absolutely must be done by Caltrans, and not by a private concessionaire. The purpose here is to use our existing 20th century infrastructure to pay for 21st century infrastructure, not to hock state property to a bunch of wealthy shareholders the way Indiana did.
If done correctly, this could bring in nearly $1 billion to the state transit fund, helping to reverse the insane cuts to mass transit and helping build things from the Subway to the Sea to high speed rail. And once the tolls have become familiar and commonplace to Californians, as we build out our commuter and metro rail/bus transit systems, we can then take the big plunge and start tolling the urban freeways.
Let me be clear: this isn’t a solution to all our transportation funding woes. We will definitely need a higher gas tax as well, and should explore other methods to fund mass transit. And it will require a federal waiver, perhaps even a new act of Congress, to slap tolls on freeways built with federal funds, though the USDOT and Congress have shown themselves willing to consider this policy in recent years.
But it is ridiculous to be leaving hundreds of millions of dollars on the table by refusing to toll the intercity superhighways. It would take just a few months to erect toll booths and hire staff. And since these would not be on the main commute routes the potential for backlash would be smaller. Backlash will still exist, but it would come from the usual wingnut suspects. Californians have shown they will tax themselves to pay for mass transit – and most Californians would support tolling the intercity freeway routes to do the same.
It is high time California ended the freeway.