Governor's plan pushes toll roads, speeds up building
CONTRA COSTA TIMES | February 25, 2005
By Mike Adamick
Motorists would be able to pay a toll to skip poky commutes, highway projects would be built faster and transportation dollars would be secure in two years, under a three-pronged attack on traffic congestion unveiled Thursday by the Schwarzenegger administration.
A major tenet of the "GoCalifornia" proposal calls for private investment to build new toll roads and so-called High Occupancy Toll Lanes, which are sometimes dubbed "Lexus Lanes" because they allow solo motorists to use car pool lanes for a fee that some say would limit access to those who can afford it.
Transportation Secretary Sunne Wright McPeak said the proposed moves will stem traffic jams and produce new toll lanes without costing the state extra money because private companies will front construction costs in return for a promise of toll proceeds, a practice already at work in Southern California.
But the new program comes as the state's transportation grid is crumbling for lack of money, and critics say Schwarzenegger's proposal to use gasoline tax money to bolster the state budget would only make the problem worse.
McPeak said GoCalifornia will jump start much-needed roadway work.
"We're putting the 'go' back into California's transportation system, which has stalled after years of neglect," McPeak said.
The first parts of the program include legislation to allow private construction of toll roads and to revamp how major highway projects are built.
For instance, Caltrans now designs a project and then accepts bids for construction. Under the second prong of GoCalifornia, private firms would both design and build major projects, such as the proposed fourth bore of the Caldecott Tunnel.
"We don't have the personnel at Caltrans to do it all to the extent that we need to expand California's transportation system," McPeak said in a telephone interview Thursday.
Aside from speeding construction, the process could limit changes in construction plans, called "change orders," which have driven up costs on major projects, such as the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge.
Lawmakers support those two parts of the proposal.
It's the third prong, Schwarzenegger's plan to use taxes to pay down part of a nearly $9 billion state deficit, that has drawn fire. After two years, under the proposed Assembly Constitutional Amendment 4X, gas tax money would be available only for transportation, McPeak said.
When voters approved Proposition 42 in 2002, they signaled that the sales taxes should go toward roads, not the state budget. A competing bill in the Assembly would stop the funding shift but allow limited borrowing against the funds with interest.
"I believe we should stop the raids on state transportation money because we need those funds for short-term and immediate safety improvements," said state Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, chairman of the Senate's transportation committee.
In his "State of the State" address last month and in his visits to newspapers in recent weeks, Schwarzenegger foreshadowed GoCalifornia. He made it clear motorists should pay higher tolls to use roads and bridges.
In Northern California, only one portion of highway has been set aside for HOT lanes: a 13-mile stretch of Interstate 680 over the Sunol Grade. The route was seen as a testing ground, but McPeak said GoCalifornia would immediately make it possible to build toll lanes elsewhere.
Russ Taft, an Orinda resident who commutes over the Sunol Grade to San Jose daily, said he supports the idea of lone drivers paying to use car pool lanes.
"On certain days, I think I would do it -- like when you have an important meeting to get to," said Taft, who is a school safety program manager for the city of San Jose.
McPeak said areas along Highway 101 north of San Francisco and other parts of I-680 could become candidates for HOT lanes.
"We're going to invite the private sector to sit down with us," McPeak said.
In some areas, car pool lanes would be converted to toll lanes, with car poolers still riding for free. In other areas, new highway lanes will be added and tolls would be charged in the new lanes, McPeak said.
Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, D-Pittsburg, who is carrying the toll financing bill for the governor, said the idea is to allow more public-private partnerships on projects such as new truck lanes on congested Vasco Road between Livermore and East Contra Costa County.
Commercial users would pay a fee to use private lanes, while the general public would still be able to ride for free but not have to contend with large, logy trucks.
"What we're trying to do here is create more opportunities than exist today to get projects up and running faster and not be locked into just one concept," Canciamilla said.
Mike Adamick covers transportation. Reach him at 925-945-4745 or firstname.lastname@example.org .