Highway Robbery - Toll Roads

OCs toll roads were supposed to be the model for our transportation future. Now they look like road kill

If the environmental effects of an 11-mile private toll road built down the middle of the Santa Ana River aren't immediately obvious, perhaps the likely economic and political consequences are. To understand those, let's go back seven years, to a humid July afternoon in 1993. Governor Pete Wilson and his Sacramento entourage whisk into Anaheim to stand in front of a bulldozer parked on the side of the Riverside Freeway. Wilson is in deep political trouble. California is in the midst of its worst recession since the Great Depression, and Wilson's likely Democratic opponent in the upcoming election is running 30 points ahead in the polls.

Wilson had chosen this spot for his media event of the day: the groundbreaking of the nation's first privately owned and operated toll road in 50 years. Orange County—perhaps the most decidedly anti-government region in California—would be ground zero in the state's high-profile private toll-road experiment.

"This is the beginning of what is not lightly described as a historic project," a characteristically stiff and squeaky-voiced Wilson said before he grabbed a ceremonial shovel and—amid cheers—tossed a clump of dirt. Governments throughout the nation had been struggling to find alternative ways to fund expensive transportation projects after costs skyrocketed and gasoline taxes shrank in the 1970s. Before the event ended, the governor touted what he claimed were the merits of "public-private partnerships" and predicted that at least 10 other similar for-profit arrangements would help solve the state's mounting traffic woes.

The man standing next to the governor that day was Gerald Pfeffer, a managing director of California Private Transportation Co. (CPTC). It was Pfeffer's company that had negotiated the unprecedented, non-competitive private toll-road deal behind closed doors in 1990 with Governor George Deukmejian's administration. Three years later, the public knew little if any of what the Republicans had arranged in their name, but such pesky details went unmentioned at Wilson's 1993 press conference. For those in attendance, it was a time for optimism, a moment when the government finally admitted that the private sector had the answers—at least when it came to traffic congestion. "All of us here today are pioneers," Pfeffer said. "We're on the edge of the frontier, on hand for the beginning of a new era."

But perhaps most ecstatic was Robert Poole of the Santa Monica-based Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank that had been pushing Republicans for years to privatize just about all of California's government services, including public roads. According to Poole, roads should operate on a free-market basis where more affluent citizens can pay tolls for the right to use private lanes and highways. The man who says his transportation ideas were inspired by director Ridley Scott's futuristic movie Blade Runner could not contain his enthusiasm about a portion of the publicly owned 91 freeway being converted into a private, for-profit operation. Poole skipped jury duty to attend Wilson's ceremony. "I wouldn't have missed it for anything," he told the Los Angeles Times. "CPTC is going to make money hand over fist from this."

For anyone who did not realize that the event was pure political salesmanship, a large green-and-white banner served as a backdrop to the roadside festivities. It proclaimed "New Roads, No Tax Dollars, New Jobs." The banner could not have been more deceptive, or Wilson and Pfeffer and Poole more misguided. Not one of the major promises made by road-privatization proponents has come true. Few additional roads (three) have been built. Tens of millions of taxpayer dollars subsidize the toll operators annually. And the 91 tollway—which the governor foresaw as an economic boom that would "work to put California back to work"—produced an anemic 300 new jobs, half of which were temporary.

While newspapers such as The Orange County Register unquestioningly praised the privatization of public roads as an example of good government, not everybody was suckered. Then-state Senator Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), now California's attorney general, was apparently one of the few who studied the proposed toll-road deals. He came away horrified. To the ire of Democrats (particularly conservative ones in Orange County) and Republicans alike, Lockyer shared with reporters his memorably stark conclusion about the privatization plans: "I think they are a polite form of highway robbery."

A decade into California's toll-road experiment in Orange County, it is painfully obvious that when it comes to the toll roads, a crime—at least figuratively—was committed. The supposed goal for building the roads was to significantly reduce near-intolerable daily traffic. But that's not what has happened. For example, you would think that the multibillion-dollar 16-mile San Joaquin Hills toll road would have dramatically reduced congestion on nearby Interstate 405 and Interstate 5 when it opened in late November 1996. But according to a Weekly review of daily traffic reports provided by Caltrans, the state's transportation agency, congestion on the freeways has essentially remained the same or worsened since the tollway opened. At one section of I-5 below the infamous El Toro Y, the average number of daily vehicle trips increased by more than 8,000 from 1996 to 1998. "That's really shocking," a Caltrans official said after double-checking the agency's traffic count. "You wouldn't think that would be the case, would you?"

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