Toll Lane Delay Temporarily Spares Politicians Inevitable Resident Hostility

A subset, at least, of San Bernardino County politicians have bought for themselves a temporary reprieve by postponing, at least until June, the opening of the toll lanes on the 10 Freeway that are to stretch from the Los Angeles County/San Bernardino County line in Montclair to the I-15 Freeway.
While what is the second substantial delay in charging motorists for utilizing the freeway will stave off county resident outrage for another five months, a question at this point is whether SBCTA – the San Bernardino County Transportation Agency – will extend that delay once more in an effort to preserve the careers of a good cross section of the county and municipal officeholders who either participated in the 2017 vote to proceed with the toll lane project or who in the years since did nothing to rescind that decision.
Work began on the $1.77 billion project in 2020, at which time officials stated the lanes would be in use by Christmas Season 2023. Subsequently, the completion date was pushed to March 2024. They have now tacked on another three-to-four-month wait, with the opening now anticipated for June or July.
One reason given for the delay was heavier-than-normal rain in early 2023, together with the need to replace what turned out to be defective beams on the Vineyard Avenue Bridge.
While some residents have long recognized that the lanes being constructed are to be ones that motorists must pay to use, many do not. The recent erection of overhead markers for the lanes has alerted some travelers. Nevertheless, commuters for more than three years have put up with delays and substantial inconvenience on the span of the freeway from Montclair all the way through Upland and Ontario to the Interstate 15, doing so graciously out of the belief that two more lanes along that span going east and two lanes going west will greatly alleviate congestion on the major highway. Statistics show that far fewer than 15 percent of travelers in California are willing to pay toll fees. Thus, the reduction of gridlock on the freeway from the advent of the lanes this summer is very likely to be far less impactful than some perceive or hope.
The specter of double, triple, indeed quadruple taxation hangs over the circumstance.
The 10 Freeway was created during the Eisenhower Administration, predating the births of more than half of those who now use it. Its right-of-way was attained and it was constructed largely with the use of National Highway Funds.
In California, motorists pay a whopping 51.1 cents per gallon in gasoline tax, the highest in the nation.
In 1989, the voters of San Bernardino County passed Measure I, a half-cent countywide sales tax override, the proceeds from which are intended to pay for road and street improvements. The Measure I taxation regime was extended until 2040 in a countywide vote in 2004. Measure I money was administered through what was then the San Bernardino Association of Governments, a regional joint powers planning authority known by its acronym SanBAG, and later SBCTA, which were and are headed by a 29-member governing board, consisting of a council member or mayor from each of San Bernardino County’s 22 cities and two incorporated towns and all five members of the county board of supervisors.
One of the first things done by the SanBAG board after the 1989 passage of Measure I was to borrow against future Measure I money to initiate transportation projects. So, rather than spending the Measure I money as it came in and accumulated, the use of bond issuances to borrow money for the projects created debt that is being continuously serviced by incoming Measure I money. While some officials claim that this was a defensible decision since inflation often outruns interest, others hold that the agency putting itself into the position of constantly servicing debt rather than paying for actual improvements going forward benefits lending institutions more than the customers paying the tax and the motorists using the county’s roadways.
On July 12, 2017, the SANBAG/SBCTA governing board, led by then-Chairman Alan Wapner, a city councilman representing Ontario, guided the board through a discussion and action to approve the toll lane project. Several of the citizens present spoke in opposition to the toll lane option for improving the freeway, some quite vociferously, some of whom grew argumentative, some of whom pleaded with the board. Their entreaties were in vain.
Thus, SBCTA’s arrangement with a third party which will collect the tolls to pay for the four additional lanes over the next 45-to-60 years constitutes triple taxation, critics of SBCTA maintain, since the use of federal money to acquire the right-of-way and build the freeway which was augmented by gasoline tax and the Measure I funding means the toll lanes have already been paid for.
When county residents objected to this quadruple taxation, Wapner, as the chairman of SBCTA, claimed that “almost none” of the Measure I funding was being used for the construction of the toll lanes. “Almost none,” some noted, is alternate phraseology for some.
If the toll lanes are indeed in place by summer, voters throughout San Bernardino County will fully understand by November that the politicians who have led them for the last several years, including ones who are members of the SBCTA board and ones who are not, were in place when the quadruple taxation financing scheme used to complete the toll lanes was given ratification. Whether those politicians are made to pay the price for that arrangement remains to be seen.
Already, in 2022, one longtime councilwoman/mayor who joined with 15 others in the transportation agency vote ratifying the toll lanes, Grand Terrace’s Darcy McNaboe, was voted out of office when her opponent, current Mayor Bill Hussey, boldly made a point of her support of the pay-to-drive scheme.
Seven others of the 16 who supported the project – Montclair Mayor Paul Eaton, Needles Mayor Edward Paget, Redlands Councilman Jon Harrison, San Bernardino Mayor Carey Davis, Upland Mayor Debbie Stone, Yucaipa Councilman David Avila and First District County Supervisor Robert Lovingood – have left office, some voluntarily, some by the will of the voters and one at the hands of the grim reaper. An eighth, Third District Supervisor James Ramos, remains in office, though not as county supervisor but in the capacity of a member of the California Assembly.
Of note, Wapner, who was the chairman of the transportation agency in 2017 – then referred to as San Bernardino Associated Governments, i.e., SanBAG – was the prime mover in the effort to approve the toll lane project, along with SanBAG Executive Director Raymond Wolf. Offering key support to the toll lane concept as well as their votes were Fontana Mayor Acquanetta and Rancho Cucamonga Mayor Lloyd Dennis Michael. Other votes in favor of the project were Apple Valley Town Councilman Curt Emick, Colton Councilman/now Mayor Frank Navarro, Highland Councilman Larry McCallon and Yucca Valley Town Councilman Rick Denison. Both Chino Mayor Eunice Ulloa and then-Fifth District Supervisor Josie Gonzales voted against establishing the toll lanes.
Then-Adelanto Mayor Rich Kerr, then-Barstow Mayor Julie McIntyre, then-Big Bear Lake Mayor Bill Jahn, then-Chino Hills Councilman Ed Graham, then-Hesperia Councilman Bill Holland, then-Loma Linda Mayor/now-Councilman Rhodes Rigsby, Rialto Mayor Deborah Robertson, Twentynine Palms Councilman Joel Klink, then-Victorville Councilman Jim Kennedy, San Bernardino County Second District Supervisor Janice Rutherford and San Bernardino County Fourth District Supervisor Curt Hagman were not present.
Wapner, Warren, Navarro and Dennison were reelected in 2022 and Michael faced no opposition. Of those that supported the project, Robertson, McCallon and Klink are due to stand for reelection later this year.
Like virtually all of the 16 officeholders who supported the project, McNaboe escaped for five years being held to answer for the vote. She nearly avoided accountability in the 2022 election cycle, as well, since the toll lanes were not in place in 2022 and would not be visible for another 18 months after that election. What tripped her up was that there has been some attention drawn to the pending completion of the project. As importantly, Hussey learned of the issue in the summer of 2022. In addition, Grand Terrace is the county’s smallest city geographically and third smallest in terms of population. The ease with which information is spread among the city’s 13,372 residents and 7,869 registered voters within its 3.5-square mile confines redounded to McNaboe’s detriment.
-Mark Gutglueck

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