Not So Fast

In their effort to blast a toll road through San Onofre State Beach clear down to Trestles—the “Yosemite of Surfing”—county officials have commissioned a study that purports to show that, next to the Rapture, toll roads are America's best hope for traffic relief. Produced by Emeryville-based consultants LeCG, “Economic Benefits of Toll Roads Operated by the Transportation Corridor Agencies” asserts that the county's toll roads save commuters six million hours of travel time (or 685 years) and 2 million gallons of gasoline per year.

Not so fast, says Dr. Michael McNally of UC Irvine's Institute of Transportation Studies. He says the study contains “very misleading statements,” and, what's more, evidence says OC toll roads don't make traffic better and may actually make it worse.

Any new road—whether public or tolled—should reduce congestion, McNally says. “It's added capacity that's relevant, not the presence of tolls or the issue of private-sector funding. The point that the TCA is making, it seems, is that there is congestion-relief magic in their product. If that were the case, then every road in OC should be immediately tolled.”

Set aside that problem, and you have this remarkable phenomenon: the agency charged with reducing congestion may actually create it. McNally points to the study's smoking-gun claim that “property values in the neighborhoods that have easy access to toll roads have increased more than in other areas of the region.”

It's no surprise that toll roads kick-start development on adjacent property—that apartments, industrial parks, housing tracts, strip joints and much-needed doughnut shops sprout up on previously inaccessible land. Nor is it a surprise that those developments generate additional traffic, only some of which ends up on the toll roads. The rest? That's what jacks up your morning commute on surface streets and freeways throughout Orange County. It's like a dystopian Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will drive.

McNally has concluded it's time to kill the TCA. The agency “was formed when no regular means of adding [highway] capacity appeared on the horizon,” he says. “As soon as alternate funding mechanisms were in place, primarily [county] Measure M, the TCA should have been eliminated.”

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