The hefty price of toll roads

Tolls should benefit transportation users. All tolls paid for transportation should be reinvested in the system for the public’s benefit, not siphoned off for private profit.

For anyone who agrees with that simple and sensible principle–and most Californians do–there is considerable cause for concern in recent news reports about toll roads in California. For anyone caring about their ability to move around the state efficiently and economically, or concerned about their dollars being invested for the greatest possible public benefit rather than corporate wealth, the news should set off a chorus of alarm bells.

News articles have raised the chilling prospect of a state transportation system controlled by the “world’s largest investment firms,” who obviously wouldn’t have obtained that status if they weren’t primarily concerned with their own profit rather than the public’s best interest.

When the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee declares that Californians will pay tolls to drive on their roads in the future, and that “who will control them is an open question,” it’s time for Californians to demand that they, through their representative government, keep that control.

The voters just approved a $20 billion bond to improve their roads, and another $2 billion annually by dedicating the sales tax on gasoline to transportation. That’s not a mandate for corporate profit: It’s a mandate for public benefit.
Privately controlled toll roads in California to date have been a disaster. They don’t reduce congestion. In fact, they depend on it. And when the bottom line doesn’t satisfy the corporate executives, taxpayers get stuck bailing them out.

Taxpayers were forced to bail out the corporate operators of the State Route 91 express lanes in Orange County at a cost of $207 million, and saw their toll for using the road soar to as high as $9.25, as congestion on nearby public roads only worsened. In San Diego, the Route 125 toll road project brought huge cost overruns, years of delays and ultimately a deal to allow the private company to collect tolls for an extra 10 years, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to the road’s users.

Californians get this. When polled, a majority says the state should have fewer or no toll roads. Large majorities say existing toll roads operated by public entities should not be sold to private entities, and that toll roads should not be operated by private companies using tolls to make a profit.

Toll roads may be a convenience for the wealthy who can afford to pay to use them, and a source of wealth for the international firms that run them. But they don’t help the small business owners who have to eat the higher costs of delivering their goods and services, or the working families who see more of the household budget diverted for the tolls required to get everyone to work and school.

One recent story acknowledged that “international investment firms are accountable to their shareholders, not the driving public.” Yet it quotes public officials supporting schemes to allow those firms to control our roads, while the driving public pays.

That’s scary.

Matt Hanson is president of the Professional Engineers in California Government.

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