Caltrans just nixed plans to widen the 101 Freeway because of vehement public opposition. Nearly 1,000 homes and businesses would have been torn down to make room for the new lanes, making the plan politically unpalatable.
Yet the need for more capacity on the San Fernando Valley's principal artery to downtown is undeniable. The new lanes would have saved commuters 78,000 hours per day of time currently wasted sitting in traffic. And as Los Angeles adds several million more people over the next two decades, the need for better mobility in this corridor will only increase.
It's time to consider adding new lanes above the existing 101 Freeway. Caltrans did this before, adding the Harbor Freeway Transitway above a portion of the Harbor Freeway. And although that project was very expensive, it added capacity and reduced the need to condemn properties alongside the freeway.
Tampa, Fla., has a similar project underway. Its Selmon Crosstown Expressway is a congested commuter route, much like our 101. Widening that expressway would have meant condemning numerous properties. Instead, three reversible express toll lanes are being added above the median.
One of the best things about this project is its low cost. Because it is being constructed out of precast concrete segments, it will cost just $350 million for the 9-mile-long project. A comparable 101 Freeway project of four elevated lanes extending 27 miles would be four times as large. Thus, at comparable construction costs, the larger project would be four times the cost — $1.4 billion.
To be sure, we all know that environmental reviews and seismic safety considerations would make the cost higher in Southern California than if the same project were built in Florida. But that $1.4-billion figure suggests that elevated construction, even at California rates, may compare favorably with the cost of adding lanes alongside the freeway on expensive condemned land.
Even at double the Florida cost — $2.8 billion — the elevated lanes would still be less expensive than the suspended $3.4-billion proposal to widen the freeway.
But that still leaves the question of whether such billions could realistically be made available in the near future for a single Los Angeles project. Florida is also suffering from state budget shortfalls, and that helps explain why most large projects there, such as the elevated Tampa lanes, are being paid for not with conventional highway funds but with toll revenues.
As shown by the toll-road projects in Orange and San Diego counties, investors will buy toll-revenue bonds that pay for the upfront costs of the project as long as they have a reasonable chance of being paid back, with interest, over the next, say, 25 years.
Tolls are more than just a good way to pay for such lanes. They would also enable the new 101 lanes to remain uncongested far into the future. As proved on the express toll lanes in Orange and San Diego counties, tolls that are high during rush hours and lower at off hours can manage traffic very effectively, keeping it flowing at a steady 50 mph to 60 mph, even at the worst of rush hour.
And that means buses and vanpools on the 101 could offer mass transit riders a guaranteed, free-flowing commute. In contrast, conventional carpool lanes already bog down in many areas and will only continue to fill up over the next 20 years, eliminating most of their time-saving benefits. But priced lanes offer sustainable time savings. Unfettered access for buses and vanpools can be guaranteed by raising future prices high enough to limit the number of cars attempting to use the express lanes.
Thus, elevated toll express lanes on the 101 Freeway would offer a host of benefits. They would provide the much-needed capacity additions without destroying 1,000 nearby properties. They would offer all drivers in the corridor an uncongested alternative route that could be used whenever it was worth paying to get someplace on time. And they would provide an uncongested freeway for express bus and vanpool services, giving 101 commuters a viable mass transit alternative, at no cost to taxpayers.
Robert W. Poole, Jr. is Director of Transportation Studies and founder of Reason Foundation.