Trans Officials Committed To Toll Lanes On SBC Freeways

San Bernardino County’s transportation agency remains intent on constructing toll lanes on the Interstate 10 and Interstate 15 freeways, in contravention of both public sentiment and the voter approved road improvement funding charter by which a major portion of county road improvements are carried out.
Based upon projections of the burgeoning population in the Inland Empire which will place even greater demands on the already overburdened regional freeway system, public officials are intent on adding lanes to the I-10 and I-15 freeways. But such undertakings must be funded with available public dollars. Other projects, many of them approved as long as a decade or more ago, have taken a place in line ahead of those lane additions. Moreover, a decision made by politicians more than two decades ago to borrow at that time against what was then future transportation project revenue has limited the financial resources of those officials working in the here and now.
SANBAG, an acronym for San Bernardino Associated Governments, acts as San Bernardino County’s primary transportation agency. SANBAG’s 29 member board consists of all five county supervisors plus a representative of each of the county’s 24 incorporated cities.
A consensus among SANBAG’s board members, based upon population increase projections, traffic pattern studies and consultants’ input, is that at least one and more likely two and perhaps as many as three new lanes will be needed to prevent traffic gridlock along the 33-mile stretch of the I-10 at the Claremont/Montclair border to Redlands. But there is not adequate funding available to build even one new lane, the cost of which has been pegged at $55 million in today’s dollars, let alone three. An idea that has picked up considerable momentum is to establish toll lanes not only along that aforementioned span of the I-10, but along the I-15 Freeway as well, from the Riverside County/San Bernardino County line all the way to Hesperia on the north side of Cajon Pass.
SANBAG administrators have previewed the idea of building toll lanes, starting first with the 33-mile stretch on I-10 at a cost of $1.5 billion, aiming at completing them by 2025 or 2026. To finance the project, they will use any available local funding. state funding and federal funding, while simultaneously borrowing against future revenue from the tolls to be collected. The SANBAG board, with the exception of a few dissenting voices, appears to be on board for that plan. It would be followed up with a similar, or equally or even more expensive, undertaking to establish toll lanes on the I-15.
The difficulty in this is that there is a gap between the vision of the planners/political leadership drifting toward the toll lane plan and vast numbers of the traveling public whom the toll lanes are intended to “benefit.” Many see no benefit in the creation of freeway lanes that they will then need to pay to use, especially given the consideration that they, as California residents, are already paying the highest gasoline tax in the nation, and are paying a half cent add-on sales tax whenever they purchase anything in the county, which is intended to fund road and highway improvements. Toll roads, in their estimation, would represent not just double taxation but triple taxation.
A major portion of San Bernardino County’s transportation funding problem extends back to a decision made in the immediate aftermath of what was otherwise a significant breakthrough in obtaining funding to update, expand, and improve the local road system. In 1989, a number of San Bernardino County politicians and civic leaders, led by the late Jon Mikels who was then San Bernardino County’s Second District supervisor, campaigned for the passage of Measure I, which called for a half-cent per dollar sales tax to be collected throughout San Bernardino County for transportation improvements. Voters approved it. Rather than simply collecting the money, pooling it for two or three years to create a nest egg that could then be directly tapped to fund projects in a pay-as-you-go fashion, the SANBAG board members impatiently moved to undertake transportation projects immediately, bonding and borrowing against the then-future anticipated revenue from Measure I. While this had, for those politicians involved, an immediate political benefit in that it allowed them to point to their accomplishments in implementing the Measure I program and demonstrating tangible improvements to the road, highway or freeway system at various spots throughout the county, it diverted a large amount of the Measure I revenue not into improvements but into interest and principle payments to the financial institutions and investors that had lent the cash. As the years went by, right up to the present, more and more Measure I money, nearly fifty percent, is devoted not to projects in the here and now, but to paying the financing costs on past projects.
Moreover, the use of Measure I money to partially defray the cost of building toll lanes would create a potential legal problem. The toll lanes would be of benefit primarily to those prepared to pay the tolls required to utilize them. But a toll system would exclude drivers – many or most of whom are San Bernardino County residents who have been paying continuously an extra half cent per dollar every time they make a purchase for the purpose of improving the county’s transportation system – from using the toll lanes based on their unwillingness to pay the added tolls. This would create a situation in which taxpayers are being denied access to a public facility they have paid – at least partially – for. It is more likely than not that a class action suit over just that issue would be filed, complicating an already complicated issue, further diverting public money intended for building transportation facilities to financing a legal defense of SANBAG’s controversial decision-making process.
Two decades ago, Orange County augmented its freeway system with toll roads. They were controversial and less than successful there. Public toll lanes were established on the 91 Freeway in connection with three privately managed toll roads paralleling Interstate 5, Interstate 405 and the 55 Freeway, with the representation that once the debt taken on to build the roads was paid off, tolls would cease and the roads would be converted to standard freeways. But the public has proven reluctant to pay to use them, and as a result the toll operators have not been able to keep up with their interest payments, let alone the principal. They have had to extend the payments for years, refinancing the debt so that the roads are not projected to become toll free until 2050.
Orange County has a population that is, on average, far more affluent than those people living in San Bernardino County. The use of toll roads, indeed the very existence of them in California, which for more than a half-century prided itself on having West Coast-style “freeways” rather than Eastern Seaboard or Midwest turnpikes or toll roads, is considered elitist. Moreover, many San Bernardino County commuters simply lack the disposable income to pay for the luxury of tolls. For those reasons, in blue collar San Bernardino County, the toll roads’ prospect for success would not be guaranteed. Already, a decade before they are projected to be built, they are being derided by critics as “Jaguar lanes” or “Mercedes lanes” or “Lexus lanes.”
A Facebook page, “Toll Free IE,” with the URL address, has been created. “This page is committed to halting the creation of toll roads in the Inland Empire, specifically on the 10 from Pomona to Redlands and on the 15,” its description reads.
Spontaneously, a movement to vote out of office any county or city officials supporting the toll lane concept in San Bernardino County has formed.
Nevertheless, elected officials see it differently, pointing out that creating the infrastructure needed to maintain quality of life in the Inland Empire will have a financial cost that not all but most of the region’s citizens will be willing to bear. They point to the toll lanes’ benefits, which include saving motorists on the 10 Freeway up to an hour of time commuting from the Los Angeles County line to Ford Street in Redlands at a cost of $2 to $7 per trip depending on how intense the freeway traffic is. Similarly, those travelling on the 15 Freeway from where it crosses the 60 Freeway to U.S. Highway 395 would pay $4 to $15 in 2015 dollars, depending on the level of traffic, to save themselves as much as an-hour-and-a-half of commuting time.

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