Monday, May 6, 2013

Does Riverside County really need to go into massive debt to fund the 91 Express Lanes extension?

Why is less and less state transportation tax money making it to the 91?

HOT Entrance at SR-55 - Better HOV 3+ Usage Policy for 91 Express Lanes
The Riverside County Transportation Commission voted unanimously to approve a $1.3 billion finance plan to extend the 91 Express Lanes to the I-15 interchange, develop HOT lane direct access ramps to/from the I-15 south, and add a general purpose lane to each side of the 91 through Corona. RCTC's financing strategy includes funds from local Measure A transportation sales-tax collections and anticipated toll revenue. This project is long past due and persons needing to transverse the corridor would welcome the infrastructure upgrades combined with plans to double the existing express bus services and improve rail transit options. However, why does Riverside County need to borrow nearly a half billion dollars in order to get one piece of its transportation infrastructure up to par?

Corona Crawl stuck in decades of massive debt:

The plan includes the selling of bonds and a $435 million federal loan which are to be repaid through tolls, roughly 1/3 of the total bill, but get this: RCTC estimates that it will take a staggering 35 years to collect enough revenue to pay off the debt. RCTC predicts that the agency will be able to use 15 years worth of toll revenue toward corridor improvements. The Commission also planned not to make payments on the loan until 2022 and will not touch the principal debt until 2027. That's decades of sitting debt for one piece of RCTC's highway and HOT lane master plan.

With this massive debt obligation, it would be almost a given that if The Transit Coalition approached OCTA and RCTC and pitched its We want toll lanes done right campaign, the public agencies would most likely point to the lack of revenue as a chief concern. If more toll-free carpoolers are using the lanes than toll-paying non-HOV's and the tolls are based on marketplace demands, how could RCTC possibly pay down the debt?

County Line Access Point - Better HOV 3+ Usage Policy for 91 Express LanesDisplacing state transportation revenue and gas tax funding to "who knows what?"

So why can't Riverside County develop a HOT lane master plan which supports free non-transponder carpooling and bus transit infrastructure despite the fact that entities all over the country have been able to do so in the past? The public can rightly question the state for this problem because the state government continues to divert your tax money dedicated to transportation away from the rails and highways, even though the public has repeatedly said, enough! As reported earlier, state spending on transportation decreased 30% since FY 2007-2008 even through we are paying more in sales taxes, 25% more in government employee retirement benefits, and gas taxes are scheduled to go up yet again in July. When such funding cuts and displacement happen, RCTC must look for other ways to pay for the extension of the 91 high occupancy 3+/toll lanes through Corona and along the I-15. What we end up with is toll lanes enslaved in decades of massive debt without transit infrastructure that mandates all HOV's to preregister for a FasTrak and pay discounted tolls during the PM rush hour. Such policies result in a reduction of HOV traffic instead of single occupancy vehicles for the corridor.

Chances are both OCTA and RCTC would likely consider adopting free non-transponder 3+ carpooling for the 91 Express Lanes if state taxes actually paid for a better portion of the expansion. With the amount of taxes we pay to the state, the 91 Freeway corridor should be completely robust with multi-modal bus transit infrastructure and expanded passenger rail service and rapid express buses from early morning through late night.

The state can also afford it too

Take a look at this finding: Earlier this year, the Reason Foundation released a study, examining 20 years of state highway improvements in seven categories: miles of urban Interstate highways in poor conditions, miles of rural Interstates in poor condition, traffic congestion, deficient bridges, highway fatalities, rural primary roads in poor condition, and the number of rural primary roads flagged as too narrow.

Conceptual Smith Avenue Direct Access RampReason found that in between 1989 and 2008, 11 states made progress in all seven categories. 11 more states improved in six of the seven metrics. 15 scored five. Seven fulfilled four and five states improved in three areas. California, with the highest gas taxes in the nation, was the only state that failed to improve in five of the seven areas, being able to improve only in reducing the number of deficient bridges and slightly curbing fatalities. Freeway surface conditions worsened significantly; take a look at this chart:
  • Urban freeways in poor conditions: up 20.7%
  • Rural freeways in poor conditions: up 10%
  • Rural highway in poor conditions: up 1.1%
  • Traffic congestion: up .9%
  • Deficient Bridges: down 3.9%
  • Fatality Rates: down 1.1%
  • Rural roads too narrow: up .1%
  • Total disbursements per mile: down $5.84M



Conceptual Smith Avenue Direct Access Ramp

The irony: With the high amount of taxes Californians are forking over to the state including a potential 70.1 cents/gallon gas tax come July 1st , we really should have some of the most efficient multi-modal transportation corridors in the world, but with 30% of our transportation tax money being cut from 6 years ago, as KRON 4's Stanley Roberts once said, "to who knows what," we are stuck with insufficient transportation infrastructure and staggering debt.

That "who knows what" might be toward government employee retirement benefits and healthcare. California’s has seen an ongoing chronic fiscal mess with anti-business-friendly regulations and continued tax and fee hikes over the past few years. Now, the local governments are charging carpools to use the high occupancy lanes just to build and maintain transportation infrastructure. It is long past due to reverse this trend.

Therefore, The Transit Coalition will continue to oppose mandatory tolls and transponders on carpoolers and advocate for free non-transponder carpooling on Southern California's high occupancy toll lanes.

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