Jewish World Review Feb. 28, 2005 /19 Adar I 5765
Debra J. Saunders
King of the road
In case you needed proof that Arnold Schwarzenegger isn't your
typical California governor, consider his 2005 State of the State address.
In the last decade, it has been de rigueur for California politicians to
denounce the very suggestion that the state should build more roads, while
piously putting their faith in increased "investment" in public transit. But
this governor is a realist. "When I first came to California, the roads
fascinated me," Schwarzenegger told Sacramento last month. "Californians
can't get from place to place on little fairy wings. This is a car-centered
state. We need roads."
What is more, the pro-asphalt politician also favors the free
market and is throwing his support behind proposals hatched by the
libertarian-leaning Reason Foundation to build new freeway lanes with
Credit Schwarzenegger for figuring out that lectures on the need
for light rail don't serve the public's transportation needs. Like other
politicians, Schwarzenegger wants Californians to "spend less time sitting
on the freeway" unlike the rest, however, he understands that the only
way to get there is by building more roads and more freeway lanes.
This is progress. In 2001, then-Gov. Gray Davis announced at a
ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Foothill Freeway in Southern California that
he was presiding over the state's last freeway ribbon-cutting. His
transportation adviser boasted that the era of California highway building
One little problem: Californians forgot to stop driving. Even in
the politically correct Bay Area, most people drive to work; only a modest
7.3 percent take public transit during rush hour, according to the
Metropolitan Transportation Commission. I can only figure that Bay Area
voters have supported spending on public transit projects because they are
deeply committed to the notion that other people should take the bus or BART
And so what happens when the Bay Area population grows by 30
percent, to an expected 8.8 million, by 2030? If there are more people but
not more roads, the answer surely will be more gridlock.
The folks at Reason believe that California has to look to the
marketplace for relief. Reason backs high-occupancy toll lanes setting up
tolls so that commuters can pay their way onto high-occupancy vehicle lanes.
Schwarzenegger already has signed legislation to put HOT lanes on the
Interstate 680 Sunol Grade between Alameda and Santa Clara counties. While
detractors dismiss HOTs as "Lexus lanes," the toll lanes relieve congestion
in the no-toll lanes as well.
Reason also proposes privately built toll roads, including a
toll trucks-only route along Interstates 880 and 580 to span the distance
between the Port of Oakland and Tracy, with a route toward the South Bay as
well. Be it noted, however, that a Reason report conceded that some state or
federal funding probably would be needed to make the project "financeable."
Robert W. Poole is Reason's guru on HOT lanes. Poole finds
himself in the odd position of working with state government, even though he
is no big fan of government. "I've become more pragmatic over time," he
confessed recently. Then again, Poole notes that he remembers that
governments built freeways to be "reliable and fast" and he wants to see
that freeways are reliable and fast again.
Marlon Boarnet, a planning professor at the University of
California at Irvine, noted that Reason has changed the way experts look at
transportation funding. "The state should look to the private sector when
the private sector can fill gaps," Boarnet explained.
The professor then added that the private sector can't fix
everything. More people will be using roads that have been aging and need
shoring up. It will take public dollars to fix the roads.
But where are those dollars to be found? Even though voters
approved Proposition 42, which required that the state spend gas-tax revenue
on transportation, Sacramento has been raiding the fund to plug the budget
deficit. As consumers buy more fuel-efficient cars, they pay less in gas tax
for each mile they drive. Inflation also has eroded the state's
18-cents-per-gallon tax, which hasn't been raised since 1994.
Some Sacramento solons are toying with the idea of putting a
meter in all state cars and taxing drivers by the miles driven. Bad idea: It
invades people's privacy, lessens the incentive to buy fuel-efficient cars
and requires a new mechanism to troll for pennies on the mile.
While the Reason approach works for new projects, Sacramento
remains short on funds to pay for maintenance. Schwarzenegger could push for
an increase in the state gasoline tax to fund needed road improvements. And
he might find that voters would favor a higher gasoline tax if it meant no
meters in their cars and no "fairy wings" or new transit projects that
produce empty seats on buses and rails while drivers sit in gridlock in
It's an old concept, but one reason people elect politicians is so they'll fix the potholes.
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