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Pay a toll to avoid traffic

Metro officials examining tolls to pay for new Interstate 5 carpool lanes

Posted: February 22, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: February 22, 2013 2:00 a.m.

Facing a $100 million funding gap and potentially decades of construction, county transportation officials are exploring the possibility of using per-mile tolls to fund two new carpool lanes on Interstate 5 in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Doing so will both speed up completion and ensure the financial viability of the project, proponents say.

As part of the ongoing effort to expand I-5 traffic capacity, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is planning to add two 13.5-mile carpool lanes from Parker Road in Castaic to the junction with Highway 14 in both directions on the freeway.

As it stands, Metro would use funds made available from sales tax dedicated to transit — namely Measure R and Proposition C funds — to construct the new lanes.

Those two funding sources would provide approximately $310 million for the project over the next 27 years, said Chris Margaronis, the project’s manager.

However, the project’s estimated cost is $410 million.

To shorten the construction window, Metro officials are considering a partnership with a private entity to bankroll and construct the project, Margaronis said.

The private investment would then be paid back by making the new carpool lanes into toll lanes. This, combined with Measure R and Proposition C funds, would be sufficient to pay the private firm, Margaronis said.

Immediate private funding could also ensure the project’s completion by as soon as 2019, Metro officials said during a Signal Editorial Board meeting on Wednesday.

Lan Saadatnejadi, executive officer of Metro’s highway program, estimated toll revenue would account for roughly 20 percent of the project’s total cost.

Saadatnejadi said this would be the first such private-public partnership in Los Angeles County.

“This wasn’t even an option for us until recently,” Saadatnejadi said, citing legislation enacted in 2009. “And we only have a short window, until 2017, that it is available.”

Public-private partnerships became an option when then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Senate Bill X2 4 in February 2009. That bill allows regional transportation agencies, as well as the California Department of Transportation, to enter into an unlimited number of public-private partnerships until Jan. 1, 2017.

In addition to immediate capital, the private entity would also be responsible for maintaining the lanes, and Metro could withhold scheduled payments if road conditions became unsatisfactory, Saadatnejadi said.

Victor Lindenheim, executive director of the Golden State Gateway Coalition, said partnerships like these could become more common in the future.

“It’s increasingly necessary to look for creative ways to fund projects,” Lindenheim said. “It will be a different world in a couple of years in terms of how transportation infrastructure is funded.”

It was unclear what the toll would be if the plan moves ahead; a public hearing is necessary to set the rate.

A solo driver would be subject to the per-mile toll at all times.

During peak travel hours, any car with fewer than three people would be subject to the toll.

In return, drivers would have a guarantee that traffic in the toll lanes will not drop below 45 mph, Margaronis said.

Tolls would vary depending on the time of day and traffic. For instance, it would be more expensive to use a toll lane during rush hour than at a non-peak time.

Santa Clarita City Councilwoman Marsha McLean, who represents the city on a number of transportation boards, said she needs more information on the proposal before she decides whether to support it.

“Obviously there is a need to upgrade the I-5 sooner rather than later,” McLean said. “But there are still an awful lot of questions to be answered.”

Metro will hold two public meeting in Santa Clarita next week to collect public comment on the proposal. The first meeting is 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Santa Clarita Sports Complex, 20880 Centre Pointe Parkway, and the second is 6 p.m. on Thursday at Rancho Pico Junior High School, 26520 Valencia Blvd.


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