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June 28, 2022

Will California stop being land of the free(ways)?

There’s a plan afoot to make this land of legendary freeways
into toll road heaven, a place where only the well-heeled can make
really good time on what once were called superhighways.
Already, Orange County sports four toll roads or highways with
toll lanes allowing those who can afford them to zip ahead of the
hoi polloi mired on the area’s freeways. Another is under
construction in San Diego County.
There’s a plan afoot to make this land of legendary freeways into toll road heaven, a place where only the well-heeled can make really good time on what once were called superhighways.

Already, Orange County sports four toll roads or highways with toll lanes allowing those who can afford them to zip ahead of the hoi polloi mired on the area’s freeways. Another is under construction in San Diego County.

It’s a dream come true for the transportation specialists at the libertarian Reason Foundation, which consistently lobbies for private enterprise to run almost everything now done by government. Even if that means many services will only be available to the wealthy.

The foundation’s ideas for changing California driving habits now have a powerful advocate in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has already tapped gas tax funds to help balance one budget and plans to do it again this year. He uses the emergency provisions of the 2002 Proposition 42 to do this, even though the overwhelming yes vote on that measure should tell him and other politicians to reserve highway money for highways.

Partly because gas tax money has been siphoned off, drivers have seen fewer and fewer freeway improvements projects over the last decade. In fact, then-Gov. Gray Davis in 2001 pronounced the opening of a new stretch of the Foothill Freeway in San Bernardino County the end of the freeway era, suggesting no further toll-free superhighways would ever be built in the state that invented them.

Of course, he didn’t say the need for new highways was over. Not even Davis was naïve enough to believe all the new people piling into California would use public transit. For one thing, entire regions possess  very little public transit.

Now comes Schwarzenegger with a package of bills to make toll roads and toll lanes (often called Lexus Lanes for the kind of cars that at times appear to dominate them) easier to build. As Reason recommends, the governor wants Caltrans, the state transportation department, to allow building and operation of toll lanes wherever it wishes, but make them free for carpools. Current laws require the Legislature to sign off on every such project.

Never mind that the cameras photographing license plates so drivers can be billed often won’t be able to tell which vehicles carry carpools and which don’t.

The governor also wants to streamline the permit process for building toll roads, combining design and construction phases of the projects.

And, in a move reminiscent of an alcoholic begging the bartender to stop serving drunks – while at the same time ordering two more shots for himself – Schwarzenegger proposes a ban on borrowing from highway funds provided by the gas tax, even in emergencies. But this ban would only be effective the year after his present term runs out, so if he were not to seek reelection, he’d assure future governors will have an even tougher time making ends meet than he’s had.

It’s a recipe for social and environmental disaster. For one thing, if toll roads and pay lanes become ubiquitous, class structure will suddenly appear on the highways. As in some Eastern states with toll turnpikes paralleling free highways, well-to-do executives will whisk ahead, while their workers are stuck in traffic jams. The rich will have far more free time and far shorter commutes than the poor.

Will gardeners and students be willing to invest their lunch money to arrive at work or school on time?

Or wouldn’t it be better for Schwarzenegger to stay away from the highway funds today, use other obvious ways to balance the budget, like a change in the way newly-sold commercial property is assessed, and let everyone keep driving on an equal plane?

Some argue that today’s toll road plans are reminiscent of early proposals for pay television, which evolved over 30 years into cable and satellite TV systems.

The difference is that television is mostly optional entertainment that no one absolutely has to watch. By contrast, highways are a vital public service provided by governments since the time of the Romans. For centuries, good roads have signaled an economically sound country, while bad ones reveal that something is wrong.

Schwarzenegger argues repeatedly that drivers should be paying more for the privilege, even as he takes money they now pay to maintain and improve roads and uses it for myriad other purposes.

The bottom line: Reason may be right in suggesting that toll systems will get new roads built quicker than using tax money, but before Schwarzenegger commits the state to go that route, it would be far better to restore the gas tax fund, maintain social equality on the highways and keep the freeways free.

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