By Mark Gutglueck
For months on end commuters on the I-10 Freeway between Montclair and Ontario have dealt with the inconvenience and hazard of bridge augmentation and construction and the paradoxical narrowing of the freeway as efforts to widen it are ongoing.
The work is extensive; upon completion the existing four lanes in both directions will be increased by two more eastbound lanes and two westbound lanes, transforming the freeway in that span from a modern eight lane interstate to a 12-lane superhighway.
The Sentinel has spoken with a cross section of county residents who use the Interstate 10 Freeway on a constant basis, primarily in traveling to and from their place of employment. Most acknowledged that they have found the construction along the freeway, involving lane closures and temporary narrowing of the entire thoroughfare, to be bothersome, indeed irritating, but generally reflect a stoic and understanding resignation at having to deal with a situation in which they have no choice. The majority have said they are putting up with the hassle because they anticipate being patient will, in time and upon the completion of the project, make the freeway safer and more travelable, increasing the freeway’s current capacity by half again.
Upon being told that the new lanes will not be in place until 2024, most expressed dismay at having to endure the current situation for another two years.
That sentiment was mild, however, in comparison to the reaction members of the common citizenry express upon being informed that the construction work they are encountering on a daily basis is taking place to make way for toll lanes being added to the freeway.
While it is true that many or most local elected officials know the nature of the lanes being constructed, virtually none of the common citizenry knows that in order for them to use the final product of the “improvement” under way, they will need to pay for it.
Unknown at this time is the degree to which San Bernardino County’s citizenry will seek to hold those responsible for saddling the region with a toll lane system to account politically. The cities at the extreme west end of the county through which the first phase of the freeway toll system is to be located are Montclair, Upland, Ontario and Rancho Cucamonga. Other West End cities impacted by the project are Chino Hills and Chino, though the freeway does not actually traverse either of those municipalities.
Though the first phase of the I-10 Freeway toll road was previously slated to reach the I-15 Freeway in Rancho Cucamonga by 2023, officials now say that the work, including removing existing retainer and sound walls along the stretch in question, will not be completed in full until mid-2024. Thereafter, the second phase of the toll system will be initiated and is to go the county line at the far end of Yucaipa, where the I-10 moves into Riverside County.
Those responsible for the decision to convert one-third of the I-10 Freeway into toll lanes are local politicians, consisting of mayors or city council members from San Bernardino County’s 24 cities and incorporated towns and the five members of the county board of supervisors, acting in concert as the county’s transportation agency.
While when functioning in campaign mode those politicians will use their status as a current or one-time board member of the transportation agency to convince voters they are responsible for creating important regional infrastructure and therefore merit reelection, they frequently exploit the general public’s ignorance of how local governments articulate with one another to avoid blame for action or decisions relating to regional transportation shortcomings by distancing themselves from the county transportation agency, and carrying on as if they are not involved with it and that its decisions were made outside their capacities as county or city officials.
The county transportation agency now goes by the straightforward title of the San Bernardino County Transportation Agency and its acronym SBCTA. It adopted that new name on January 1, 2016, having previously been known as San Bernardino Associated Governments, or its acronym, SANBAG.
Founded as a council of governments and joint powers authority by the County of San Bernardino and its then-14 constituent cities – San Bernardino, Ontario, Colton, Redlands, Upland, Needles, Chino, Rialto, Barstow, Fontana, Montclair, Victorville, Loma Linda and Adelanto – it was overseen by a 19-member board of directors composed of the five county supervisors as well as representatives from those 14 incorporated cities who were either each city’s mayor or designated council member. Ultimately, with the incorporation of Rancho Cucamonga, Grand Terrace, Big Bear Lake, Highland, Hesperia, Apple Valley, Chino Hills, Twentynine Palms, Yucaipa and Yucca Valley, SANBAG grew to represent 24 municipalities and the county by means of a 29-member board.
The first regional issue San Bernardino Associated Governments took on was public transit, utilizing as its seed money the ¼-cent sales tax to fund transportation projects at the local governmental level made available through the Transportation Development Act.
On December 3, 1975, SANBAG adopted its bylaws and under the leadership of its maiden president, then-Fifth District Supervisor Nancy Smith, created a public transit agency to provide bus service throughout the San Bernardino Valley, known as Omnitrans. Eventually, other transit agencies were formed to serve other areas of the county, including in the San Bernardino Mountains, the Victor Valley, Barstow and the Mojave Desert and Morongo Valley.
In 1976, SANBAG was deemed San Bernardino County’s transportation commission after lawmakers passed legislation allowing counties to develop their own transportation commissions. In 1986 SANBAG was designated the freeway emergency service authority in San Bernardino County, which provided emergency call boxes along the freeway and, later, a public-funded freeway roadside assistance service patrol.
By the 1980s, San Bernardino County’s population was outgrowing the infrastructure needed to accommodate that population. This represented a threat to the development and real estate interests that had a financial stake in allowing that growth to proceed unabated. That continued growth was making serious inroads on the quality of life enjoyed by the county’s residents. The politicians, whose careers as elected officials were being financed in large measure by the development industry, property owners and real estate speculators, were under pressure to allow the development to continue. Casting about for a way of alleviating the intensive gridlock on the I-10 Freeway that was a direct consequence of the burgeoning population, the crop of politicians in control of the county and its cities at that time – led by then-First District Supervisor Marsha Turoci, Second District Supervisor Jon Mikels, Third District Supervisor Barbara Cram Reardon, Fourth District Supervisor Larry Walker and Fifth District Supervisor Robert Hammock, sought a means by which SANBAG could be enabled to institute a locally administered taxing arrangement to be entirely devoted to transportation issues, one of the major infrastructure shortcomings besetting the overbuilt county. In 1987, that initial effort failed, as many county residents perceived that the county’s politicians would not use the tax money to merely make up the regional transportation infrastructure deficit, but utilize the newly-created roads and other infrastructure as a justification to continue the past pattern of overbuilding unabated, thereby perpetuating the county’s overburdened road system.
In 1989, however, SANBAG managed to establish itself with the state as the county’s transportation authority, and immediately set about in an effort to get the county’s residents to pass Measure I, a countywide ½ cent sales tax override with the proceeds devoted exclusively to improving transportation infrastructure.
Upon the passage of the transportation tax initiative Measure I in 1989, the politicians overseeing SANBAG made a crucial decision against banking the Measure I proceeds for three or four or five or six years to create a fund from which regional transportation projects would be financed on a pay-as-you-go basis. Instead, prompted by their own political interest in playing to the public perception that transportation improvements were indeed being carried out as well as accommodating their political donors in the development and real estate sectors by allowing further unbridled construction to proceed, the SANBAG board moved to borrow against the anticipated future revenue from Measure I and begin transportation-related projects at once.
Among these were funding the expansion of the 210 Freeway. Originally begun in 1958 as a freeway in the greater Los Angeles area of Southern California running from the Symar district of Los Angeles east among the San Gabriel Mountain Foothill communities, the 210 Freeway in 1962 was replanned to continue all the way to Redlands. No further state or federal funding for the project had materialized after it reached Glendora in the 1970s, however. Able to use the future Measure I tax proceeds to engage in bonded indebtedness service, SANBAG issued bonds to undertake the continuation of the 210 Freeway from Pomona to San Bernardino.
In 1990, SANBAG after having itself designated as the “Congestion Management Agency” for San Bernardino County, SANBAG utilized the bond proceeds to pay for the county’s participation in the Southern California Regional Rail Authority, which brought Metrolink, a passenger rail service to San Bernardino County from Union Station in Los Angeles. It also funded the construction of the segment of State Route 71, or the Chino Valley Freeway, running from I-10 in Pomona to Chino Hills and then to Chino.
Making the bond arrangements and beginning the transportation improvement projects quickly served to please and placate the county’s residents who had voted both for and against the approval of Measure I, and it stood as a statement that the county and city sponsors of Measure I were living up to the commitment to use the tax to undertake needed transportation-related improvements, while simultaneously serving to boost the politicians who were responsible for sponsoring it and campaigning for its passage. Nevertheless, bonding, or borrowing, against the future anticipated revenue from Measure I carried with it a downside. The proceeds from the bond sale were indeed used to begin work on those projects, but the purchasers of the bonds in short order were due interest payments within the 5 percent to 6 percent per year range that would continue for 30 years, followed by a payment equal to the face value of the bonds purchased upon the maturity of those bonds, meaning at the end of the 30-year cycle. Thus, a significant percentage of the revenue generated by Measure I over the more than 31 years that the tax it authorized has been in place has gone not toward actual transportation improvements but servicing the debt those bonds represent, on paying the interest on the loans SANBAG, which is now known as SBCTA, has taken out.
This rerouting of Measure I money to financiers rather than going directly to traffic-alleviation efforts is an issue at the heart of SBCTA’s current commitment to dedicate the four lanes being constructed on the I-10 Freeway between the Pomona/Montclair border and the I-15 Freeway to carrying motorists willing to pay a toll fee rather than typical commuters along that stretch of the highway.
While toll roads, sometimes referred to as turnpikes, have long existed in the United States, they are relatively rare in California. Many decades ago toll bridges in the San Francisco Bay Area were extant. In Northern California there are toll lanes, referred to as express lanes, on the 580, 680, 880 and 237 freeways. More than three decades ago, toll lanes were established on State Routes 73, 133, 241 and 261 in Orange County followed by express lanes on the 91 Freeway. There are express lanes on the 15 Freeway in San Diego County. What are referred to as Metro Express lanes debuted in Los Angeles County in 2012 on the I-10 and 110 freeways.
San Bernardino County was a holdout against toll lanes, but in 2014, after Rancho Cucamonga Mayor L. Dennis Michael became the president of SANBAG, Dr. Ray Wolfe, a one-time California Department of Transportation Agency executive who in 2012 was hired as SANBAG’s executive director, began pushing for San Bernardino County to construct toll lanes.
The concept was by no means universally accepted.
Then-Fontana City Councilman Michael Tahan, who represented his city on the SANBAG board, resisted the idea, as did others. The proposed additions to the freeway were denounced by opponents as “Rolls Royce lanes” or “Cadillac lanes” or Mercedes lanes” or “Lexus lanes” by opponents, who said only the wealthy would be able to afford to use them.
There were arguments presented against the toll lanes along practical grounds, including that they would not lessen gridlock but intensify it. Observation of toll roads elsewhere in Southern California – in Los Angeles County and Orange County – demonstrates that the freeways where they are located are regularly tied up, with the toll lanes being marginally used. This creates a spectacle whereby three, four or even five lanes of traffic will be very slow moving or not moving, while next to them is or are one or two lanes being hardly used at all in which cars are zooming by at speeds nearing, at or exceeding the speed limit. In this way, travel space on the freeway is squandered, and the lion’s share of traffic moves at a far slower pace than it would if all lanes were available to the freeway’s users.
Whether out of principle or financial consideration, the majority of freeway motorists in Southern California are unwilling to pay the money required to utilize toll lanes. For a significant number of people – perhaps even a majority of people – this comes across as unfair and an unwise apportionment of public money. California’s motorists pay substantial vehicle licensing fees. California’s motorists pay the highest gasoline tax in the nation. In San Bernardino County, residents have elected to pay the Measure I tax based upon the assurance the money would be used to facilitate the construction of adequate transportation infrastructure. Yet, in San Bernardino County at present, those using the 10 Freeway are being forced to spend more time on the freeway than they would otherwise because of the ongoing construction of the toll lanes, and when that construction is completed, they will see virtually no personal benefit whatsoever. Those residents, as taxpayers, were and are in some fashion supporting the cost of creating a freeway system for collective use. Yet the toll system being built will exclude them from using the lanes being built within the freeway system they are paying for, unless they are willing to pay more money on top of the taxes and fees they have already paid.
The SANBAG board in 2015, upon considering all factors, in particular that there was inadequate revenue flowing into SANBAG’s coffers to pay for increasing the number of lanes on the freeway, opted to undertake the toll lane project.
Of note is that in Orange County, the toll lanes built on state routes 73, 133, 241 and 261 were completed without, officials claim, the use of public funds, but rather were financed through the issuance of a special class of bonds dubbed “toll revenue bonds” sold to private investors. The bonds are debt serviced by the tolls and development impact fees imposed on the development industry and collected by the various local governments where the toll roads exist. The concept in Orange County was that over the 30-year life of the bonds, the debt to the bondholders would essentially be serviced by the tolls paid by the toll road users, and after the bonded indebtedness was retired in full, the toll roads, which are owned by the California Department of Transportation, would cease being toll roads and become integrated with the existing non-fee lanes on those state routes. Because the toll roads were not used to the extent anticipated, the bonds were not debt serviced in conformance with the scheduled pay-off plan. As a consequence, the absorption of the toll roads into the regional road infrastructure such that everyone can use them without paying – which was supposed to have occurred by now – has not yet taken place. Those stretches of state highway will remain as toll roads until 2050.
In the case of the toll roads in San Bernardino County, involving both those to be constructed on the I-10 Freeway and on the I-15 Freeway as well, the financing is being handled through the San Bernardino County Transportation Agency. Yet there has been no explicit public discussion with regard to the eventual sunsetting of the lanes as ones requiring a toll for their use, leaving open the possibility that they will remain toll lanes into perpetuity.
The circle of those responsible for the conception and actuation of the San Bernardino County toll lane plan is a small one. Foremost within that group is Dr. Raymond Wolfe, SBCTA’s executive director, and Rancho Cucamonga Mayor L. Dennis Michael, who was president of the SANBAG board when the San Bernardino County toll road plan was hatched. Others crucial to seeing the concept through are current SBCTA President Curt Hagman; Montclair Mayor John Dutrey, his city’s representative on the SBCTA board; Upland Councilman Carlos Garcia, Upland’s representative on the SBCTA board; Ontario Councilman Alan Wapner, his city’s representative on the SBCTA board; and Second District County Supervisor Janice Rutherford. The majority of the past and current members of the SBCTA board acceded to establishing the I-10 toll lanes.
In addition to being SBCTA chairman, Hagman, is now the chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors. Moreover, the cities of Montclair, Upland and Ontario, through which the I-10 toll lanes will run, lie within Hagman’s Fourth District. Nevertheless, Hagman steadfastly refuses to publicly discuss SBCTA’s commitment to establishing the toll lanes on the 10 Freeway. In referencing the project, he makes allusion to adding lanes, but does not mention that motorists will have to pay to use them. He is scheduled to stand for reelection later this year.
Similarly, Wapner is standing for reelection in Ontario this year. He, too, has refused to go on record with regard to the toll lanes, aware that the vast majority of his constituents have no inkling that in order for them to use the lanes on the I-10 Freeway that are now being constructed in their city and are scheduled for completion in two years, they will be charged a fee. Keeping those who will be called upon to vote either for him or his competitors in this year’s election in the dark on that issue will enhance his reelection chances.
Mayor Dutrey is not scheduled to run for election until 2024. Still, like both Hagman and Wapner, he spurned the Sentinel’s offer to share his perspective on the toll lanes, say whether he was and remains in favor of establishing them, and explain his rationale for supporting them if he in fact favors their construction.
Councilman Garcia was not a member of the Upland City Council and therefore not a board member with SANBAG when the decision to go forward with creating the I-10 toll lanes was made.
Supervisor Rutherford said that she “reluctantly” supported the toll lane project because SANBAG/SBCTA had committed its available revenue elsewhere and the funding to widen the freeway was not available. She will be termed out of office at the end of the year.
Mayor Michael was unwilling to get into a public discussion relating to the toll lanes. He, too, is scheduled to stand for reelection this year.
Dr. Wolfe likewise refused to speak on the public record with regard to the toll lane project, indicating in making his refusal that he did not believe he could offer a cogent defense of the project.
For virtually all of those involved with SBCTA – board members or staff – they currently enjoy the luxury of the public’s lack of awareness that the current augmentation of the I-10 Freeway consists of toll lanes, and the concomitant misassumption that the project involves a widening of the freeway which upon completion will be of use and benefit to all motorists using the freeway.
That grace period will come to a close as soon as the lanes are in place along with the signs and electronic devices that will warn against and restrict anyone who has not paid a toll from using them, some members of the SBCTA board acknowledged.
“I would imagine there is going to be some controversy,” Chino Mayor Eunice Ulloa, her city’s SBCTA representative, told the Sentinel. “Though many articles informing the public of what is going to happen have been written and published, I don’t think people know that is what is coming. I don’t think the public is tuned into what’s happening. I would guess that the majority of people will not be real happy with having to pay to use the freeway.”
Ulloa said the county’s residents rightfully feel that they have paid for the extra lanes on the I-10 that are being built.
“The people passed Measure I, the half-cent sales tax, and it was supposed to help with transportation issues, but like everything these days, the money does not go as far as we would like it to. In order to reduce congestion on the freeways, the powers that be felt that toll lanes would help to reduce the gridlock. That remains to be seen. Many of us were not convinced that was the best way to go. “
Ulloa continued, “There is a question about the best and most efficient way to spend our local tax dollars.”
She said it could well have been a mistake to bond against the future Measure I tax revenue back in 1990 rather than exercising patience and accumulating a nest egg to utilize directly in undertaking traffic system improvements.
“That’s why we have advisors, to help us to sort out those kinds of issues, to look at inflationary factors and whether we should wait and pay as we go or whether with the rise in costs, increasing wages and the price of materials it is better to begin work right off,” Mayor Ulloa said. “With China snapping up steel and concrete, causing material costs to rise, we need experts to look at the best way to go. It might be better to try to beat inflation by getting the projects done immediately before the costs escalate. But that doesn’t always work. It is never a win-win. We have done some pay-as-you go projects in Chino. We have also borrowed against our assets and future revenue when interest rates were low and we were able to get ahead of inflation. But that strategy does not work in every case. Nobody has a crystal ball to know what is the best course. The public wants improvements now, and sometimes mistakes are made.”
Ontario Mayor Paul Leon said constructing toll lanes on the I-10 Freeway was not SBCTA’s best option, nor is charging the county’s residents to use transportation infrastructure they have already paid for justifiable.
“I am in 100 percent agreement with widening the freeway, but I am not in agreement that we should have taxpayers pay for lanes they will not be using,” he said. “We are faced with this monster we call addressing the gridlock on our freeways and we are continually paying huge amounts of money to feed that monster but every time we do, we don’t have enough money to slay the monster and it keeps growing and it’s getting bigger and bigger.”
Leon said, “We were told that if we build the 210 Freeway it will serve to end the congestion on the 10 Freeway, and so we built the 210 Freeway and now what we have is congestion on the 210 Freeway and 10 Freeway and the 60 Freeway.”
The answer goes beyond accommodating more cars on the freeway, Mayor Leon said. He said providing other commuting options such as the Gold Line, consisting of dual trains on two separate parallel tracks running into and out of Los Angeles with departures in either direction five to six times an hour would create a reliable system that would divert a significantly large number of commuters off the freeway. The Gold Line, also referred to as the L Line, exists, but only in Los Angeles County. San Bernardino County and SBCTA at one point were progressing toward extending the Gold Line from Pomona into Montclair, and that effort was infused with a $41 million State of California Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program grant to cover the $96 million cost. The long-term plan was to ultimately extend the Gold Line to Redlands, with stops at several spots in between, with the most significant being Ontario Airport. Nevertheless, the SBCTA board in 2019 abandoned the project, opting to return the $41 million state grant in the process upon Dr. Wolfe concluding and advising the board the undertaking would prove too expensive.
“We need an alternative that meets the needs of the people,” Leon said. “As far as I am concerned, that solution was light rail. That should have been our priority, but the powers that be felt that pay lanes are the answer, because, I think, it is basically one of those issues that economically favors people with money. If you have money to pay to use the toll lanes, then you see a benefit from it. If you don’t have money, there is no benefit to you, even though finding the way to build it involved a tax that was equally spread over the people who will never use it because they are not prepared to pay a toll to use the freeway, although I am personally guilty of using pay lanes when I need them.”
Leon said, “I believe there is a necessity to widen the freeway, but I would never have advocated pay lanes. My attitude is much different, and I would have been in favor of bringing light rail into the county and taking it as far east as we can. As it turned out, there was opposition to that and we could not achieve that, which is now a political fight we will meet at some other time.”
Leon said imposing tolls on commuters is the wrong way to go to increase the carrying capacity of the freeway.
“My question is: ‘Why?’” Leon said. “Why are we going to charge freeway drivers a toll, with the State of California full with abundance and a surplus to the point of $18 billion? We’re charging an unfair 63 cents a gallon gas tax that was not voted upon and imposed by the government in order to address freeway congestion, bridge construction and grade separations and shoring up the infrastructure in California. I don’t know where that money – billions of dollars – is going. Then they want to charge us to use these FasTrak lanes, basically so that people with money can get to-and-fro quickly. I don’t find that fair. The opposition will say it is because we don’t have the money to build the improvements, but I thought that was what this gas tax is for.”
SBCTA’s haste and impatience in utilizing bond funding has contributed to the funding shortfall, resulting in tax money being diverted away from actual projects to debt service on past projects, Leon suggested Those who are asserting that the toll lanes are justified are not doing so based upon logical analysis, Leon said, but to meet the preconceived expectations of SBCTA’s leadership that funding beyond what is available from the generous tax allotments already earmarked for transportation projects has to be generated, and freeway tolls are the easiest way to do that.
“You have to be a self-ordained expert not to see what is in front of you,” Leon said. “We make the same mistake that most people do, which is to expect that our elected officials are somehow experts in everything, including finance.”
Past SANBAG board members and their current SBCTA counterparts listened to advisors such as bond counselors and bond attorneys who stood to obtain fees if the agency issued bonds as part of its financing approach, Leon said.
“They are making decisions based on what someone else tells them, and later you find out that may not have been the best thing to do,” he said.
Neither Hagman nor Wolfe nor Rutherford nor Michael nor Wapner nor Dutrey were willing to explain how they considered utilizing bond financing, essentially involving borrowing money so that the loans/bonds are secured with future tax revenue, can be justified.
Montclair City Manager Ed Starr took a stab at explaining what the rationale is for using bond financing to defray the cost of transportation infrastructure projects up front and forgoing simply banking an agency’s revenue stream, as in the case of SBCTA Measure I tax revenue, to instead have that agency pay as it goes by using that saved revenue to pay directly for improvement projects.
“By getting an infusion of funding up front you can do a range of projects over time that will be completed well ahead of the maturation of the bonds that were issued,” Starr said. “You can then move on to the next project. That allows you to do long range planning and do it at a more sophisticated level.”
If the cost of money – reflected in interest rates – is sufficiently low, Starr said, a public agency can get more bang for its buck by beginning its projects at the earliest possible date. That involves bond financing or borrowing against anticipated future revenues, he said.
“You settle on a group of projects and do them over a period of time,” Starr said. “After you complete those projects, the first bond is paid, at which point you can look at refunding the project financing or doing another measure. That keeps you moving forward so that you are not just completing the one project you can afford to do but several projects that will benefit the public immediately as well as over time.”
He continued, “I understand why people object to creating long-term debt, but if you look at the lending market and interest rates available today, you are seeing an interest rate of 4 percent or lower,” he said. “When you look at it in that way, it makes more sense to do a large number of projects up front and benefit the community in a far deeper way than you would otherwise. If you have the cooperation of low interest rates in the lending market, that can be a more effective than paying as you go.”
Starr offered a defense of toll lanes as well.
“The argument against them, as I understand it, is they will not be used by low-income individuals so that they will, on one hand, be underutilized,” Starr said. “On the other hand, the argument against them is that if they are used to capacity, people will be paying to go no more quickly than if they were not using the lanes. People protest the existence of toll lanes because it is felt that they are a burden on lower income individuals who will not be able to use them. I believe that once you educate people that the toll lane is also a carpool lane if there are three or more people in their car, that addresses some of that basis for the objection. For people who need to get to their destination more quickly who are willing to pay the surcharge, this gives them an option, but, of course, they must be willing to pay.”
Starr said the system allows for people to register as FasTrak users ahead of time, but SBCTA is also going to incorporate a feature that will allow those who are not registered to use the system to travel in the toll lanes and make payment afterwards.
“Once they find out about that option, I think you will see people will make use of it,” Starr said.