SACRAMENTO — Amid much chest-beating over the possible demise of yet another California tradition, the Assembly on Thursday narrowly approved legislation that for the first time would allow counties to build toll roads as an alternative to overcrowded freeways.
One lawmaker labeled the bill "un-Californian," and another called it an "elitist" concept.
Despite traditionally strong legislative opposition to East Coast "turnpikes" that take a financial bite every few miles, the measure was sent to the Senate after only a brief, albeit emotional, debate. The vote was 41 to 30, the bare majority needed for passage.
"They have a head-in-the-sand attitude," GOP Assemblyman Nolan Frizzelle, who introduced the bill, said of his vocal critics. "We have congestion today and no options. This bill gives us an option."
If passed by the Senate and signed into law, the legislation would be a major departure for California, which was among states that pioneered the modern freeway concept and has jealously guarded its system of tax-based public road financing.
However, since voter approval of Proposition 13 in 1978, which dramatically reduced the size of government treasuries, local and state officials have been searching for new ways to pay for these increasingly costly and politically thorny highway projects.
State law already gives the Department of Transportation power to authorize and build toll roads and bridges. But the only real toll road in California today is the 17-mile drive along the scenic Carmel coast through property owned by the Del Monte Corp.
Unlike that road, those contemplated by the bill would be major highways authorized by county governments, built on public property and financed by fees collected at booths set up at intervals along the routes.
The legislation was inspired by Orange County officials who have been pressing for local authority to build toll roads as a way of easing congestion but also to help a few major landholders. The Irvine Co., the largest of those landowners, has been discouraged from developing thousands of rural acres it owns in Orange County because of the lack of capacity on existing highways and not enough public money to build new ones.
Private Toll Roads
Frizzelle last year tried to push a bill through the Legislature that would have given Orange County the authority to build private toll roads. The measure was rejected in the Senate Transportation Committee after members denounced the effort as "an enormous departure" from traditional road financing policies.
This year, however, there appears to be a new acceptance of such measures, particularly in the face of pessimistic projections on the future of traffic congestion. Already transportation committees in the Assembly and Senate have passed toll road bills that apply only to Orange County.
The statewide bill approved Thursday requires any toll road that is built to be "parallel" to other public highways. Supporters say the requirement means that toll roads will not be built willy-nilly but only near existing highways that are plagued by chronic congestion.
"All we are trying to do is give motorists a choice," said Chairman Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda) of the Assembly Transportation Committee. "If they don't want to pay the toll, they can stay on the freeways." Katz told critics that the bill is "innovative and worth a try."
But Assemblywoman Delaine Eastin (D-Union City) said toll roads simply have no place in a state where motoring is so integral a part of the popular culture.
Denounced as Un-American
"It's un-Californian to build toll roads," declared Eastin, who used the Assembly floor debate to decry toll bridges as well. "There is a critical problem to get out and build roads for all of California, not for just a few rich counties."
Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman (D-Tarzana) added that highway tolls amount to a "mandated regressive user fee," falling hardest on those who need transportation the most but can least afford to pay.
Gov. George Deukmejian has stayed out of the toll road fight, although he has been under increasing pressure from motorists and business leaders to deal with the worsening traffic situation. Earlier this month, the governor unveiled a $2.3-billion, five-year plan to boost spending on state transportation projects by 40%. Tolls are not a part of the plan, which would be financed by general obligation bonds.
But Deukmejian also appears ready to break some long-held traditions when it comes to transportation. If his program is approved, it would be the first time in modern California history that highway construction is financed by all taxpayers. Today, highway projects are paid by motorists through "user taxes" such as federal and state gasoline taxes and levies on trucks according to their weight.
Deukmejian Press Secretary Kevin Brett said the governor is aware of the toll road bill but that he has not taken a position on it.