The I-405 Toll Lane Money Fountain

We already pay high gasoline taxes and have a local sales tax for transportation. Why tolls? That's a common question for many high occupancy toll lane projects. The Riverside County Transportation Commission published its response on the project website for the 91 Express Lane extension project:

In the past, gas taxes were enough to fund our state’s transportation needs. Over time, though, the value of gas taxes has eroded, with neither federal nor state taxes tied to inflation. In addition, with more fuel efficient vehicles on the road, drivers are paying less in gas taxes. Another problem is that the demand on our highways continues to climb. The California Legislative Analyst’s Office reports that the number of miles we travel each year has grown by 31 percent since 1992. Overall, gas tax revenue doesn’t cover even basic highway maintenance, much less infrastructure improvements. Our local Measure A half-cent sales tax is not enough to meet the increasing demands placed on our transportation network. Tolls will provide the additional funds we need to build the 91 Project.

Many states rely on tolls to help build and maintain their transportation systems. Tolls are seen as one of the fairest types of funding, since they are tied directly to use of the lanes, and drivers have a choice of using regular lanes if they would rather not pay tolls. Without this toll revenue, the 91 Project likely would not be built for another 30 years, since tax dollars won’t cover the cost.

HOT done right: I-15 Express Lanes with free non transponder 2+ carpooling.
It's clear that the funding issue is beyond the power of local transportation agencies like RCTC and OCTA. Government officials from all levels need to police our transportation tax money better so that such funding actually makes it to the rails and roads as they should, not in the pockets of the special interests which includes bloated salaries and costs beyond the market rate. Toll lanes also need to be about moving people and not be government agency money fountains. But the I-405 toll lane proposal between the I-605 and SR-73 is now suggesting otherwise. In Orange County some members of the OCTA Board of Directors are seeking to maintain the 2+ occupancy requirement for carpool for the proposed high occupancy toll lanes for I-405; that is, carpools 2 or more would travel for free. Here's what OCTA CEO Darrell Johnson had to say about it.

"You can’t have a ‘two-plus’ toll policy and excess revenues."

2 can be the carpool for the I-405 through Orange County

So let's get this straight. If the I-405 had dual high occupancy lanes each way, the infrastructure and operating policies similar to the I-15 Express Lane facility in San Diego County where 2+ carpools can travel free without a toll transponder as some on the OCTA board are seeking, that would certainly improve multi-modal mobility for the I-405 freeway. But is OCTA staff citing a revenue shortfall against a solution that actually worked down south?

According to the Press Telegram, transportation officials predict that if the I-405 supported free 2+ carpooling for the I-405 HOT lanes, that would result in reduced revenues from tolls. Upping the carpool occupancy requirement to three would bring in $163 million over 5 years. Unlike the 91 where high occupancy vehicle demands are high enough where 3 should be the carpool, the I-405 carpool lanes normally load up during peak hours in the peak direction. They are normally free-flowing at other times. The I-405 can sustain high speed dual 2+ high occupancy lanes each way.

Concept: Strong marketing campaign example to convert 2-person carpools to 3 for the 91 Express Lanes. The I-405 HOT lanes would be able to sustain 2+ carpools. Note-Concept only; not endorsed by RCTC.
3's a carpool for the 91 Express Lanes

When dual 2+ carpool lanes reach capacity, then it becomes debatable to raise the occupancy requirement to 3 to keep it moving. That's the case for the 91 Express Lanes. The existing 2+ carpool lanes through Corona along the 91 become as congested as regular lanes during peak times, most weekends, many holidays, and most of the day during the summer. This includes the eastbound mile-long dual carpool/FasTrak lane buffer between the county line and the 71 freeway. RCTC should plan a strong marketing campaign to convert the 2-person carpools into three as part of the 91 Express Lane extension project, establish early morning to late night express bus and Metrolink transit connections with possible long term night owl service, and work on getting the bond debt paid off so that the corridor can financially support free non-transponder 3+ carpooling.

Policing our Precious Transportation Funds

It is becoming evident that toll lanes have become more about raising money for the local government than about improving traffic flow. In the case of the I-405, when 2+ non-registered carpoolers are driven out of the upgraded high occupancy lane, the remaining space is sold for a toll. That is a policy that we object. With the added lane, there is no other reason to raise the occupancy requirement for carpool. Whatever toll money comes in must stay within the corridor which would include maintenance, bond debt reduction, and rapid express bus services. In the meantime, the OCTA Regional Planning and Highways Committee voted to recommend that the OCTA Board postpone a vote on the lanes until further public outreach is conducted. We'll see what happens on Friday.

Regardless of what the OCTA Board does, government officials must stop making excuses and stop the misspending of our transportation tax dollars. If the state stops displacing our fuel tax revenue, stops pandering to the special interests, demands that infrastructure costs match the marketplace rates, and voters hold our officials accountable for reflecting the values of the people that they are supposed to represent, we can have first-rate robust transit infrastructure that is completely paid for. That's how high occupancy toll lanes can support free non-transponder carpooling which can help get Southern California moving.