February 27, 2005
They're Coming, So Build It

By Debra Saunders

In case you needed proof that Arnold Schwarzenegger isn't your typical California governor, consider his 2005 State of the State address. In the last decade, it has been de rigueur for California politicians to denounce the very suggestion that the state should build more roads, while piously putting their faith in increased "investment" in public transit. But this governor is a realist. "When I first came to California, the roads fascinated me," Schwarzenegger told Sacramento last month. "Californians can't get from place to place on little fairy wings. This is a car-centered state. We need roads."

What is more, the pro-asphalt politician also favors the free market and is throwing his support behind proposals hatched by the libertarian-leaning Reason Foundation to build new freeway lanes with private dollars.

Credit Schwarzenegger for figuring out that lectures on the need for light rail don't serve the public's transportation needs. Like other politicians, Schwarzenegger wants Californians to "spend less time sitting on the freeway" -- unlike the rest, however, he understands that the only way to get there is by building more roads and more freeway lanes.

This is progress. In 2001, then-Gov. Gray Davis announced at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Foothill Freeway in Southern California that he was presiding over the state's last freeway ribbon-cutting. His transportation adviser boasted that the era of California highway building was over.

One little problem: Californians forgot to stop driving. Even in the politically correct Bay Area, most people drive to work; only a modest 7.3 percent take public transit during rush hour, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. I can only figure that Bay Area voters have supported spending on public transit projects because they are deeply committed to the notion that other people should take the bus or BART to work.

And so what happens when the Bay Area population grows by 30 percent, to an expected 8.8 million, by 2030? If there are more people but not more roads, the answer surely will be more gridlock.

The folks at Reason believe that California has to look to the marketplace for relief. Reason backs high-occupancy toll lanes -- setting up tolls so that commuters can pay their way onto high-occupancy vehicle lanes. Schwarzenegger already has signed legislation to put HOT lanes on the Interstate 680 Sunol Grade between Alameda and Santa Clara counties. While detractors dismiss HOTs as "Lexus lanes," the toll lanes relieve congestion in the no-toll lanes as well.

Reason also proposes privately built toll roads, including a toll trucks-only route along Interstates 880 and 580 to span the distance between the Port of Oakland and Tracy, with a route toward the South Bay as well. Be it noted, however, that a Reason report conceded that some state or federal funding probably would be needed to make the project "financeable."

Robert W. Poole is Reason's guru on HOT lanes. Poole finds himself in the odd position of working with state government, even though he is no big fan of government. "I've become more pragmatic over time," he confessed recently. Then again, Poole notes that he remembers that governments built freeways to be "reliable and fast" -- and he wants to see that freeways are reliable and fast again.

Marlon Boarnet, a planning professor at the University of California at Irvine, noted that Reason has changed the way experts look at transportation funding. "The state should look to the private sector when the private sector can fill gaps," Boarnet explained.

The professor then added that the private sector can't fix everything. More people will be using roads that have been aging and need shoring up. It will take public dollars to fix the roads.

But where are those dollars to be found? Even though voters approved Proposition 42, which required that the state spend gas-tax revenue on transportation, Sacramento has been raiding the fund to plug the budget deficit. As consumers buy more fuel-efficient cars, they pay less in gas tax for each mile they drive. Inflation also has eroded the state's 18-cents-per-gallon tax, which hasn't been raised since 1994.

Some Sacramento solons are toying with the idea of putting a meter in all state cars and taxing drivers by the miles driven. Bad idea: It invades people's privacy, lessens the incentive to buy fuel-efficient cars and requires a new mechanism to troll for pennies on the mile.

While the Reason approach works for new projects, Sacramento remains short on funds to pay for maintenance. Schwarzenegger could push for an increase in the state gasoline tax to fund needed road improvements. And he might find that voters would favor a higher gasoline tax if it meant no meters in their cars and no "fairy wings" -- or new transit projects that produce empty seats on buses and rails while drivers sit in gridlock in their cars.

It's an old concept, but one reason people elect politicians is so they'll fix the potholes.

Copyright 2005 Creators Syndicate

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Debra J. Saunders
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