Back-Seat Driver

Back-seat Driver: Turning freeways into ‘feeways’; Are toll roads ahead?

Tony Bizjak
Tony Bizjak

How would you feel about paying a toll to drive on Interstate 80 to Lake Tahoe or the Bay Area? Or Interstate 5 to L.A.?

In a proposal to Congress last month, the U.S. Department of Transportation suggested allowing states to turn interstate freeways into tollways. Cash-strapped states with aging highways can use the toll revenue to repair and update those highways (relieving the feds of much of the burden). U.S. DOT also proposes allowing toll revenue to be used to improve mass transit near the toll road.

Road builders and free-market advocates have long pushed the idea of toll roads. The fact that the Obama administration is talking about it suggests the idea is gaining traction.

Politically, though, it’s difficult to turn a freeway into a “feeway.” Most drivers likely will not appreciate suddenly having to pay to use I-5 or I-80 or other interstates. The federal government has a pilot program allowing Missouri, North Carolina and Virginia to make the switch, but none of the three has yet been able to pull it off. The trucking industry, among others, is opposed.

A California Department of Transportation spokesman was circumspect when we asked what his agency thought of the idea.

“We don’t comment on proposed legislation,” David Anderson said. He added, though, “Greater flexibility for states is certainly helpful as we explore all our funding options for the future.”

Sacramento officials already have explored the possibility of new toll roads and of toll lanes on existing local highways. Their conclusion: Tolling is not a panacea for funding woes.

In 2010, Caltrans and local planners looked at adding a toll lane on Interstate 80 through Sacramento County. The group concluded there is not enough congestion to attract enough drivers to use the lane. Given the costs of setting it up and operating it, the lane likely would not break even until about 2035, they said. Caltrans also looked a few years ago at turning the carpool lane on Highway 50 into a toll lane, but came to similar conclusions. The frequent on- and offramps would not allow a toll lane to function efficiently.

Notably, those were studies of adding a toll lane, which gives drivers the option of paying to use that lane, if they think it will get them to work faster. On toll roads, all drivers must pay. Sacramento planners have studied two possible new toll roads.

One would be the planned Placer Parkway, which would connect highways 65 and 99. But local government officials say they don’t have enough up-front money to attract a private partner to build and operate the road.

Another would be the planned Capital SouthEast Connector road, which would connect Highway 99 at Elk Grove with Highway 50 in El Dorado County. Project head Tom Zlotkowski floated the toll idea, but several area council members reacted negatively. Zlotkowski says the toll idea remains, but “only as a backup if all other options to fund the project fail.”