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Envisioning the Inland Empire

As published in the San Diego Daily Transcript

by Vince Vasquez

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A new report finds that California’s fastest growing metropolitan area will face unique development challenges over the next fifteen years which will severely stress our aging transportation system. One innovative policy solution stands out which, if adopted, will accommodate future population expansion while also strengthening inter-regional ties.

This month, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) released “Planning for a Better Future,” a report that identifies critical statewide policy challenges that must be addressed as our population dramatically swells through 2025. Rapid growth has been a fact of life for Californians; as the paper’s authors put it, “no other developed region of the world that is California’s size has sustained so much growth over such a long period.” And this will continue to be the case; between 2008 and 2025, the state population is projected to increase by more than 8 million residents – adding an area about the size of the city of Long Beach (500,000 people) annually. Foremost among the booming regions will be the “Inland Empire,” (IE) the joint San Bernardino -Riverside County area that is home to more than 4 million people today, and has served as an important bellwether for our state growth demands.

The IE, along with other interior metropolitan areas such as Sacramento and the San Joaquin Valley will absorb most of our statewide population growth through 2025, and will increase in size at a faster pace than the state average, while other regions, mostly coastal areas like San Diego, will experience slower population growth rates. By 2030, state officials project that the Inland Empire will accommodate approximately 2.3 million more residents, and by 2050, Riverside County alone will have the second largest population in the state. All of this new growth will severely strain public infrastructure in the region and throughout the state, most of which is 40 to 50 years old, and won’t be replaced soon.

The PPIC forecasts that the total vehicle miles traveled on Golden State highways will continue to outstrip population growth and the increase in new state highway lanes. Much of this trend is due to the relentless movement of goods via commercial trucks, but also the increasing cross-county commuting patterns of many Californians. In 2006, 30% of San Bernardino County workers and 29% of Riverside County workers commuted out of their county. Long-distance commutes add up to long road delays; the Texas Transportation Institute released a study this month which found that the typical driver in the Inland Empire had about 44 hours of traffic delays in 2007, a higher rate than the national average of 36 hours of delay per motorist. As the Inland Empire’s population has more than doubled in the last 28 years, traffic congestion has also soared; consider that in 1982, the delay in Riverside and San Bernardino counties was only five hours. With new land acquisition costly and eminent domain a politically divisive issue, IE officials are now focusing on plans to use price to manage existing traffic and finance expansion of existing highways.

At issue is a dynamic transportation management tool known as high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. HOT lanes allow single-occupant vehicles to use a traditional carpool lane by paying a toll based on value pricing, which reflects real-time traffic conditions and fluctuating highway demand. Value pricing raises highway toll rates at peak traffic hours and lowers them during off-peak hours, ensuring that this scare and finite resource will be available for any driver who needs it, when they need it. By using a radio transponder that commuters affix to their dashboard, HOT lanes allow high-occupancy vehicles to continue using their designated lanes for free while collecting tolls from solo drivers, which statistics show come from all socio-economic backgrounds.

HOT lanes are popular with transportation officials, as they place the cost of new roadways on those who choose to use the lanes, and don’t depend on state transportation dollars for completion. The Riverside County Transportation Commission now is floating plans to expand an 11-mile stretch of Interstate 15 (I-15) from the San Bernardino County line at Highway 60 to Lake Elsinore at Highway 74 with three more lanes on both sides of the highway, two of which will be HOT lanes. Plans also include widening the 12-mile commuter corridor of Highway 91 from the Orange County border to I-15 with the same free lane/toll lane redevelopment. In all, the combined $3 billion highway expansion projects are expected to be financed with new public transportation bonds, paid off through future toll revenue. A final decision on the two Riverside proposals isn’t expected until 2011, and the completed roadways are likely to be seven to ten years away, but neighboring county governments must recognize that a new potential partner has emerged which could be incorporated into a compelling vision for regional transportation.

With HOT lanes operating in Orange and San Diego counties today, and new proposals advancing for Riverside, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, a vast interregional network of seamless HOT lanes stretching across Southern California may soon become a reality, saving commuters precious time and money with “congestion insurance” regardless of the location of their workplace and residence. Such a system would prove cost-effective at a time of fiscal austerity at the state capitol, and when new highways would come with an exorbitant price tag. The Reason Foundation determined in 2006 that in order to reduce traffic congestion and accommodate future population growth through 2030, California would need to add over 13,100 lane miles at a cost of nearly $122 billion, mostly due to the high cost of land acquisition and construction.

The Riverside projects, once completed, could connect with Orange County’s 91 Express Lanes, which have been operating for nearly 15 years, and stretch 23 miles from the city of Anaheim to the Riverside County line, as well as the I-15 Express Lanes in North San Diego County, which first opened a 4.5 mile segment in September 2008, and will ultimately stretch 20 miles from Escondido to Mira Mesa. Riverside County officials should examine San Diego’s experience with providing drivers innovative traffic solutions through HOT lanes, such as the Bus Rapid Transit system and a movable median barrier that can add three lanes of traffic during peak driving times. More consideration by both San Diego and Riverside planning officials should be given to connecting their respective I-15 projects by building out future HOT lanes south of Lake Elsinore at Highway 74 to San Marcos at Highway 78.

Using price as a way to allocate the supply of excess lane capacity is an economically sound policy whose time has come, not only in the Inland Empire, but all throughout the Golden State. HOT lanes advance effective market-based solutions to infrastructure development and traffic management, saving taxpayer dollars and expanding individual choice at a time when government revenue is dwindling and the regional population is rising. As we look to overcome challenges on our state’s horizon, we should consider meeting them with one unified plan.