California toll bills advance

| 9/10/2008

The California Legislature wrapped up its regular session, but not before approving a bill that would make it easier to open toll roads in the state. Four more bills that address tolling also have cleared the statehouse. The next stop for the bills is Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk.

One bill – AB3021 – would allow local transportation agencies to build toll lanes. Existing free and non-tolled general-purpose lanes or highways could not be converted into tolled lanes or highways.

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

The “public-public partnership” measure 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 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 access carpool lanes for a fee.

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

Another bill that has cleared the state’s Assembly and Senate would authorize the Riverside County Transportation Commission to operate two 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 include 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.

A separate bill to advance to the governor’s desk 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.

Sen. Louis Correa, D-Santa Ana, is the sponsor of another measure – SB1316 – that has moved 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