Tuesday, 4 October 2011

NRDC opposes new toll roads but supports tolls

The LA Times reports on how the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) - a environmental lobby group - opposes a new toll road - the Foothill South toll road, in southern Orange and northern San Diego counties.
Proposed Foothills South toll road

The proposed road is an extension of State Route 241 and is described on its official website as follows:

Extending the 241 will ease traffic on Interstate 5 by creating an alternative route for the hundreds of thousands of motorists a day who travel between San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles Counties. Without the toll road, travel from the San Diego/Orange County border to Mission Viejo will take one hour in 2025. With the toll road constructed, the same drive on Interstate 5 will take 25 minutes and only 16 minutes on the toll road. The 241 is also expected to take pressure off Interstate 15, currently used by many driving from eastern Orange County into San Diego County.

The NRDC opposes the road calling it "yesterday's approach to traffic management"...", for the project to pencil out financially, are expected to be so expensive that only wealthy drivers would choose to pay them"... "road for the rich".

Its key criticism, to be fair, is that it claims the route will be environmentally destructive. I can't comment on that claim, but the criticism that the toll road shouldn't be built because it will be for the "rich" is not unknown elsewhere. In short, it implies either the road wont be viable, because so few will use it (in which case it wont be built), or it will be viable, but only benefit the wealthy - which is not an environmental argument, but a political one. Yet it also advocates an untolled widening of the Interstate Route 5.  Not a road for the "rich", but a road improvement not paid for entirely by those who benefit from it.

Curiously, it argues that the toll road will "waste" money.  The project website claims it will be fully privately financed and be repaid through tolls.  Hardly an imposition on taxpayers.   It is fair to argue about where a road should go, but let's not pretend there are economic arguments against a viable toll road.


One of the most effective long-term strategies to manage congestion and save fuel is to use pricing measures that accurately reflect the cost of travel, such as pay-as-you-drive insurance and congestion pricing....Many states in the program have begun more widespread use of the most well-known pricing tool, tolling - today only 2,900 of the 46,730 miles in the interstate highway system are tolled -- but few have attempted any sort of variable pricing, which would go a long way toward reducing fuel use and pollution...The DOT should continue to encourage states to implement pricing measures including, and moving beyond, tolling.

I recognise environmentalists tend to oppose building new roads, because they believe they generate more traffic.  They are starting to support road pricing, because they believe it can reduce traffic.  However, new roads that are tolled, are likely to be sustainable because the capacity provided can be managed optimally.  In a world where the environmental impacts of road vehicles are decreasing on average on a per vehicle km basis, it may be worthwhile for environmentalists to consider how roads can best be managed efficiently, and to advocate new capacity only being built when it can be paid for by the users. Arguments against new roads can always be made on the basis of their impact on the local environment, but including tolls should change the way such capacity is thought of.

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