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COMMENTARY ON TOLLWAY PLAN : If Debt Kills Toll Road, a Congested Freeway Is on the Horizon : San Joaquin Hills route should be reduced to four lanes, and instead of a flat fee, adopt one based on time of use.

February 14, 1993|G.J. (PETE) FIELDING | G.J. (Pete) Fielding is a professor of social science at UC Irvine. From 1983-89 he was director of the Institute of Transportation Studies for the University of California system.

A highway between San Juan Capistrano and Newport Beach would be convenient--it would save time for commuters and facilitate distribution of goods. However, a destructive, eight-lane tollway is not required.

A four-lane scenic highway, such as those in Upstate New York, would be adequate if a better toll structure were used. This plan could provide the basis for a compromise between developers and environmentalists at odds over plans for the San Joaquin Hills toll road.

The Orange County Transportation Corridor Agencies, overseeing the construction of three proposed tollways, should operate more like the phone company; charge more for access at peak hours, and give discounts for off-peak use. Such a toll structure would produce more efficient tollway operation, allowing the size of the tollway to be cut in half. It would even improve the financial viability of the project.

And here lies the critical point. If the authorities go ahead with current plans for the San Joaquin Hills corridor, the most likely outcome is bankruptcy, followed by conversion of the tollway into a freeway. That's an outcome that should worry the elected representatives from Laguna Niguel, Laguna Hills and Irvine.

A tollway is inherently a low-traffic road. When tolls are set high enough to repay a share of the cost, there will be little traffic noise and air pollution. But if the tollway goes bankrupt and becomes a freeway, traffic volumes and environmental impacts will be enormously greater.

Many people would like to prevent the toll road from being built. A compromise would prevent it from being overbuilt.

All we need is a few changes. First, cut the width of the road in half; four lanes instead of eight. Second, vary the price by time of day, just as the phone company does. If the peak toll were $3.75 (instead of the planned $2.50), peak-period trips would decrease by 8,800 per day while revenue would increase by $18,000 per day.

Consider the benefits that flow from this simple change in pricing. The need for additional lanes to accommodate rush-hour traffic is reduced because those commuters with some discretion over time of travel change their journeys to take advantage of the discounted, off-peak tolls, just as many of us postpone some of our phone calls until rates decline. The right of way could be reduced, and the narrower highway would require less earth moving and be far less detrimental to land and animals.

The combination of decreased construction cost and higher income will produce a financially healthy toll road. This is exactly the strategy planned for the toll lanes on the Riverside Freeway. And that is why the financial markets are giving more support to that project. The private company which will build and operate the four toll lanes will not only pay construction costs, but also provide a satisfactory return on investment.

The need to build the San Joaquin Hills toll road to freeway standards was based upon overly optimistic population, employment and development forecasts. Population in the corridor was projected to increase by 3.4% annually, but the 1990 census indicates growth at a much lower rate.

Several changes account for the error: Proposed developments have been shelved in favor of those in established suburbs; expansion of the Laguna Greenbelt has eliminated most of the Laguna Laurel development; and downzoning of land has occurred in Dana Point, Laguna Niguel and Laguna Hills.

Unforeseen changes have also occurred in transportation. Rail service has been doubled, and the road expected to be built along the Santa Ana riverbed has been delayed. This extension to the Orange Freeway would have linked the San Joaquin toll road via the Corona del Mar Freeway with central and northern county destinations.

As originally proposed, the San Joaquin Hills road was to be built with revenue from tolls and fees levied on new homes and commercial developments--but sufficient revenue is now uncertain. To satisfy banking interests, the Transportation Corridor Agencies lobbied for federal legislation that would allow the government to provide a backstop line of credit in case toll revenue is insufficient.

To increase use, Transportation Corridor Agencies are also trying to eliminate competition by restricting the ability of the California Department of Transportation to make improvements to Laguna Canyon Road and Coast Highway and by diverting commuters from Newport Coast Drive. But even ardent supporters are beginning to doubt the need for an eight-lane tollway. This is why a compromise might be feasible.

If the tollway agency would adopt time-of-day pricing and give people a reason to alter their travel, congestion would be reduced. Travel could be accommodated on a four-lane highway.

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