There’s been some discussion lately (or at least, when I meant to start this blog) on the underperformance of the Orange County Toll Roads. These roads were constructed in the early 1990s, in an ingenious scheme to create a system whereby the revenues from highways accrue to bondholders all over the world rather than the taxpayers of the county. Let’s leave the questionable wisdom of privately operated roads for another post, and return to the problem facing roads like the 73 tollway – not enough cars to service the debt through toll collections.
The LA Times focuses on the high cost of driving the roads, and the competition from the improvement of alternate free routes, for example the 405 and the 5, which provide an alternate to the 73. This leads to discussion about what toll rate produces the optimum revenue – would revenue be increased by lowering the toll to draw more traffic? Or would revenue be increased by raising the toll, reducing traffic and maintenance costs but collecting more money from fewer drivers? Another issue brought up is that the roads were overbuilt at 6-8 lanes, when 4 lanes would have sufficed at the outset and resulted in lower bond payments.
Cap’n Transit surveys the situation and says that, in addition to the folly of improving competing freeways, the lack of cars on the 73 suggests that we shouldn’t always view HOT lanes as greenfield construction, or as additions to existing highways. That’s certainly true; you could make a great case for turning an existing lane into an HOT lane on the 10 freeway between Downtown LA and Santa Monica. And in fact, maybe I will make that case in a future post.
But there’s something else going on in the case of the 73. The authority that built the highway was created in 1986, and the 73 was completed in 1996. At the same time, the following conservation areas were established, on lands that directly abut the 73:
- Crystal Cove State Park: 3,936 acres (1979)
- Laguna Coast Wilderness Park: 9,488 acres (1993)
- Aliso and Wood Park: 3,926 acres (1990)
- Bommer Canyon: 16,000 acres (1982)
That’s a total of about 33,000 acres of land that was set aside and precluded from development, either not long before the 73 was built or during planning and construction. Now, maybe that part of the San Joaquin Hills is so unique and precious that all of that land had to be preserved. Certainly, between Malibu and Camp Pendleton, the PV Peninsula and the San Joaquin Hills are the only places where mountains cascade right down to the Pacific. The views are incredible. I’m not here to argue about that.
But I am here to argue that it doesn’t make sense to build a highway, and then prevent development on the land around the highway – development that might justify the highway’s existence. It’s not just that the 73 competes with free facilities like the 5 and the 405. The 73 is a vastly inferior facility if you are trying to get to the major development centers in southern Orange County, like Irvine.
Transit advocates have been quick to point out the underperformance of these roads as an argument against building new highways, but the same principle applies to transit. Between 1904 and 1920, several subway lines were constructed between Manhattan and the Bronx. As a result, the population of the Bronx increased from 200,000 in 1900 to 1,200,000 in 1920. But imagine what would have happened if large swaths of the rural Bronx had been declared conservation areas in 1905. There’d be no one riding the subways, and they’d look like a terrible investment. Regardless of what type of transpo you build, you need to allow land uses around the infrastructure to grow. Otherwise, what’s the point?