Several California toll bills advance

| 8/28/2008

With the end of the regular session rapidly approaching, the California Senate has approved a retooled effort to make it easier to open toll roads in the state. Four more bills that address tolling are nearing passage or are awaiting transmittal to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The California Legislature is scheduled to adjourn their regular session on Sunday, Aug. 31, and legislators are working to get favored bills through the statehouse in the time remaining.

The Senate voted to send a bill back to the Assembly for final approval that would allow local transportation agencies to build toll lanes. The vote came after senators initially rejected the bill because of concerns about adding tolls to existing roadways.

Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, asked that the bill be brought up for reconsideration to allow supporters to address concerns. The amended version would prohibit the conversion of existing free, non-tolled general purpose lanes or highways into tolled lanes or highways.

An exception would be made for converting high-occupancy vehicle lanes, or HOV lanes, into high-occupancy toll lanes, or HOT lanes.

The “public-public partnership” measure – AB3021 – would call for the creation of the California Transportation Financing Authority. The seven-member board would assist transportation agencies in obtaining financing – primarily issuing bonds – to use tolls to pay for road work.

Legislative approval no longer would be needed on a road-by-road basis. Local agencies would be given authority to charge tolls. The measure would mandate that tolled highways must have the option of toll-free lanes for use in the same corridor.

Another provision in the bill would allow for congestion pricing. It would allow for toll rates to change depending on the time of day and traffic conditions. The bill also calls for allowing personal vehicles with one occupant to use carpool lanes for a fee.

Critics are wary about congestion that would result on alternate, free roads. Supporters acknowledge that the legislation isn’t the “silver bullet” that would solve all of the state’s transportation problems, but say that it would be a useful tool.

Another bill has cleared the state’s Assembly and Senate that would authorize the Riverside County Transportation Commission to operate two high-occupancy toll lanes, or HOT lanes, in both directions of Interstate 15. It would include congestion pricing.

Sponsored by Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, R-Lake Elsinore, the measure – AB1954 – would encompass the roadway stretching from the San Bernardino County line to state Route 74.

Jeffries said the HOT lanes would offer an alternative to drivers willing to pay the fee as well as provide an incentive for carpooling by offering a free or “steeply discounted rate.”

The bill is awaiting transmittal to Schwarzenegger’s desk.

A separate bill nearing passage in the Assembly also would authorize the use of HOT lanes on two roadways in Los Angeles County. Sponsored by Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas, D-Los Angeles, the legislation – SB1422 – would make carpool lanes accessible to lone motorists for a two-year test period, starting in 2010. Congestion pricing would apply.

The additional access would apply to the one carpool lane in each direction on a 16.5-mile stretch of state Route 110 and a 14-mile stretch of Interstate 10.

Revenue from the lanes would be used for mass transit improvements to help reduce congestion.

If approved by the Assembly, the bill would move back to the Senate for approval of changes before heading to the governor’s desk.

Sen. Louis Correa, D-Santa Ana, is the sponsor of another measure – SB1316 – that is awaiting transmittal to the governor. It would authorize the Riverside County Transportation Commission to develop and operate toll lanes on state Route 91. Express lanes already exist on the roadway in Orange County, but they end at the county line.

The transportation commission would like to extend the existing facilities from the Riverside County line to Interstate 15, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Correa’s bill also would authorize the issuance of bonds to pay for work on toll lanes.

One more bill that has cleared the Senate and Assembly would establish the Otay Mesa East Toll Authority. Sponsored by Sen. Denise Ducheny, D-San Diego, the measure – SB1486 – would give the authority authorization to issue bonds and collect tolls to build state Route 11 and a new port of entry in San Diego County.

To view other legislative activities of interest for California in 2008, click here.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor