By Victor Lindenheim
Golden State Gateway Coalition
Californians spend hours every day sitting in traffic. And the roads they idle on are often rough and potholed, their exits, tunnels, guardrails, and bridges in terrible disrepair. According to transportation expert Robert Poole, this congestion and deterioration are outcomes of the way America provides its highways. He claims that our 20th-century model overly politicizes highway investment decisions, short-changing maintenance and sometimes making investments in projects whose costs exceed their benefits.
Yes, it happens, although our state and county agencies try to do the best they can with the resources they have and the rules they operate under. But, is there a better way?
In Rethinking America’s Highways, Poole examines how our current model of state-owned highways came about and why it is failing to satisfy its customers. He argues for a new model that treats highways themselves as public utilities — like electricity, telephones and water supply.
If highways were provided commercially, Poole argues, people would pay for highways based on how much they used, and the companies would issue revenue bonds to invest in facilities people were willing to pay for. Arguing for highway investments to be motivated by economic rather than political factors, this book makes a case for a new approach to highways.
In rebuttal, one might ask if we, as consumers of electricity, communications services and water, are satisfied with the services we are receiving at the prices we are paying.
The answer may depend on where you live and who your service providers are.
Robert W. Poole is director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation, a public policy think tank, and is the author or editor of five previous books on public policy.
Mr. Poole’s organization, Reason Foundation, does an Annual Highway Report, comparing efficiency, effectiveness and conditions of highway systems on a state-by-state basis. Their 24th annual report is not kind to California, ranking our state 43rd overall in highway performance and cost-effectiveness, 47th in urban interstate pavement condition, 48th in urbanized area congestion and 49th in urban arterial condition.
Of particular concern is California’s placement at 47th for its rural fatality rate (see page 3 for Interchange story on SR 138). There’s better, if not great news for California in the rankings: 18th for overall fatality rate, 19th in structurally deficient bridges and 21st in the urban fatality rate.
Now, in fairness to our state, the data that the rankings are based on are from 2016 and 2017 — before massive infusions of Measure M and SB1 capital for transportation projects. And, with due deference to Mr. Poole’s extensive knowledge and experience, a radical overhaul of our admittedly politically infused system is neither practical nor possible for the foreseeable future in California. Why not? Because the current system seems to be working.
Funding is available and good things are happening right now. The agencies we have worked with through the years have helped to make projects happen, including Caltrans, Metro, L.A. County Department of Public Works and the U.S. Department of Transportation. In evidence, I submit the progress being made in North Los Angeles County, in particular the projects of interest to the Gateway Coalition: Interstate 5, State Route 14, State Route 138 and The Old Road in Santa Clarita.
While differing in scope and location, these projects all have at least two objectives in common: adding roadway capacity and enhancing safety. Could it have happened sooner and at a lower cost? Maybe, maybe not. But it is happening now.
Added roadway capacity’s obvious benefit is that roads can accommodate more vehicles at a better level of service, i.e. higher speeds. From a safety standpoint, auxiliary lanes and roadway widening offer motorists more room for critical maneuvers such as merging, passing and safely exiting. Enforcement lane additions and expansions give law officers more room to work and better access for emergency vehicles and first responders.
So, to Mr. Poole, I would say your theories for improving the way additional capacity and safety enhancements on our highways are worth exploring, but for now, we in North Los Angeles County are appreciative of the improvements under way.