Thursday, January 20, 2005

$3 billion San Gabriel Mountains toll tunnel urged
By Harrison Sheppard - Sacramento Bureau

SACRAMENTO -- A study released Wednesday by the Reason Foundation recommended building more toll roads throughout California, including a $3 billion toll tunnel through the San Gabriel Mountains to cut travel times between Palmdale and Pasadena.

The study by the Santa Monica-based libertarian think tank said such public-private partnerships, in which private investors help build and maintain roads in exchange for toll revenue, represent the future of traffic relief in the state's congested urban areas.

"We think we've come up with a way to (reduce congestion) in this report, and that is generating new revenue from tolls that people and trucking companies would willingly pay to use new improvements to the system that offer them better service," said the study's lead author, Robert Poole.

To illustrate its point, the study examined the idea of a tunnel through the San Gabriel Mountains, which would cost an estimated $3 billion to build. Tolls would be in the $8 range for travel in each direction -- with the price varying on time of day -- that would help repay 83 percent of that cost, the researchers said.

Travelers who normally use the Antelope Valley Freeway would save about 51 minutes traveling between downtown Los Angeles and Palmdale during rush hour, or 63 minutes between Pasadena and Palmdale, the study estimates.

By shortening the travel time to Palmdale, the project could help fuel an expansion of Palmdale Regional Airport, Poole added.

The idea has already been subject to preliminary studies by the Southern California Association of Governments and the city of Palmdale, but no one has fully examined the technical requirements or environmental consequences of such a massive project.

And the idea could be a tough sell to state officials, who remain skeptical about the costs and the concept.

Assemblywoman Jenny Oropeza, D-Carson, the chairwoman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, said toll roads such as the 91 Freeway in Orange County have been a failure.

"If this toll road costs as much as they think it will, it's not going to pencil out in terms of being able to put any kind of rational per-mile toll that people will be willing to pay," Oropeza said. "It's just not going to work."

"I'm not a huge fan of toll roads, because I view them as elitist," she added. "Our public highways ought to be accessible to everybody regardless of their income level."

The Reason Foundation study blamed the Orange County toll road's problems on political conflicts and said it now functions successfully.

Two years ago, the foundation produced a similar study that focused primarily on toll roads for commercial trucks.

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Harrison Sheppard, (916) 446-6723 harrison.sheppard@dailynews.com

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