Tuesday, January 31, 2012

End of the Road? No One Wants To Pay For Maintenance of California Highway

An LA Times article tells us that Highway 39 was built in the 1920's and goes from Azusa almost to the Angeles Crest Highway.  Right now it ends about 27 miles up.
A landslide swept away the highest part of the road in 1978, cutting it off from Angeles Crest Highway. Since then, that last stretch of asphalt has been roamed by Nelson's bighorn sheep, creatures fully protected under state law. Caltrans concluded that it would be cost-prohibitive to re-engineer that 4.4-mile gap and legally risky to try because it cannot guarantee that the sheep would not be killed in the process.
 About 500 people use the road to get to their homes and the story says about 3,000,000 people use the road each year and it costs Caltrans $1.5 million a year to maintain  the road that is regularly damaged by landslides, falling rocks, flooding, and forest fires.  (Presumably that doesn't include the last 4.4 miles.)

Caltrans is the State of California Transportation Department and as it is looking for ways to cut costs, it wants to give the maintenance to Los Angeles County or the US Forest Service.   
L.A. County needs the highway to access three dams critical to flood control. . .

The Forest Service's interest is access to Angeles National Forest by the public and, at times, by firefighters. The agency spent $6 million improving a spacious campground at Crystal Lake, where the highway now ends after winding along the San Gabriel River past the Morris and San Gabriel reservoirs.
But neither is interested in taking over the job.

So Caltrans is talking about abandoning the road. 

"According to the agreement, the only way we can extricate ourselves from it is to abandon the highway," he [Caltrans rep] said.

The Forest Service says it has a different interpretation, one that would cost Caltrans dearly. "The permit does say that if Caltrans abandons the highway, they have to remove their improvements — meaning the road — and return the area to the natural landscape," Bergeahl said.
 All this seems to be some sort of brinksmanship, reporter  Louis Sahagun.   3 million people a year is $.50 each to pay the repairs.  But why should people on that road be required to pay when other roads get covered by the state? 

I like thinking about roads going back to nature.  I'm not advocating it, but the whole notion of roads and other human encroachments on the earth being reclaimed by nature gives hope and perspective. 

A little context for Anchorage folks.  A 2010 Dowl engineering report says that 50,000 vehicles a day travel one of Anchorage's busiest roads -Tudor Road between Bragaw Street and Lake Otis.  That comes to 10,000,000 vehicles per year.  California's 'remote' Highway 39 carries almost 1/3 that number. 

The LA Times article says 'people' per year and the Alaska report says 'vehicles' per year so these numbers may not be comparable.  Nevertheless, it should put our Alaskan traffic into a bigger context and the California traffic too. 

My guess all this posturing will lead to some sort of splitting up of the costs among those jurisdictions that have a vested interest in the road. 


  1. Well, what if the state takes the highway over and maintains it from tax or fees.

    I think maybe a transportation fee would be a better idea because only the users will pay it. There are cameras which can read the time plates so recognising free-riders. You could upload a credit from mobile or internet. You mentioned that it would be $0.50 per occasion but drivers should pay more as the administration and technology requires money as well. In Croatia there are gates where you need to pay for the next stage.

    The other solution would be if the maintaince would be sponsored by the taxpayers. This is unjust because everyone pays for it, not only the users. However its administration is cheaper.

    At the moment I have no more ideas.

  2. Ropi, I think you have to read the LA Times article to get all the details. Your user fee (toll road) suggestions makes some sense - but as I said, why people on this road and not other roads.
    The State currently owns and maintains the road, but they are looking to cut their budget. Perhaps there are other roads they have suggested cutting too but the article didn't mention.

    My 50cent figure only works if their 3 million people means 3 million cars. If not, it will be more per car. And should the people who live close to the bottom of the road and trael it often, have to pay for repairs near the more expensive top where they never go?

    The economic principles are easy until you start applying them to actual situations. Should the County of Los Angeles and the National Forest Service get free access to their property courtesy of the State of California?

    And when you compare this 'little used' California Road with 3 million people/year to the most heavily traveled Anchorage Road with 10 million vehicles, then it doesn't seem to be so'little used.'

    1. Well, in Hungary you don't need to pay for all the roads so I don't understand the question. You can get to the Lake Balaton from Budapest if you pay for the motoway or you go on lower level roads. However you need to pay for the speed (time) and comfort.

      As it is mentioned this road has importance at flood control, which is a kind of security issue, therefore it could be nationalised. I know it is like a cursing word in your country, but it has happened your country as well in case if a war or when state control was needed for security. The Forest Service has been a kind of free rider if it has just profited from the road but it is not paying for it.

    2. Ropi, You are right in economic principle, but it's more about political power. And the details get complicated.

      Right now it is 'nationalized' but on the state level, not the federal level. The State of California (pop. @ 37 million) owns the road and up until now has been paying to maintain it. But, because of the budget problems they are talking about dropping the road.

      I suspect they are hoping to negotiate with the County of Los Angeles and the Forestry Service to have them pay some of the cost. This is like playing poker. Are they bluffing? I think so. This is more about power politics than economic principles.

      I'd also point out that while in the Eastern United States there are many toll roads, in the West they are very rare. Mainly bridges I think. See this very short list from Caltrans.

    3. Well, I don't get this. How the US or a state can have budget problems? There is a lot more in the system. Let's see the revenue side. For example fuels. In Hungary, an in Europe there is tax on fuel because it pollutes the environment (Pigou tax). As far as I know it exists in the US, but in Hungary it takes almost half of the price of the fuel. Here fuel's price is ca. the double than in the US. I don't say it is good but once I saw an American car in Hungary and it was much larger than Hungarian ones, it barely had space in the lane. You don't need 200 horsepowers to get to your workplace.

      A few weeks ago I saw a chart which showed that the state taxes away around 50% of your income by taxes. It is not good and it is not just because we earn much less and the services of the state is quite low compared to a Scandinavian country which takaes away a lot money from the taxpayers as well.

      So I can't really understand the problem, but it may be because in my country taxes and prices grow quite often if the budget needs more money.

      However we have our problems as well. Here local governments lack resources as well and the Prime Minister is shocked that they are indebted because of loans, when money given from the centre is insufficient even for the compulsory tasks of the local government (school, collecting garbage, maintaining roads and other services described in the law on local governments).

      In Esztergom for example lights were switched off because the local government couldn't pay. It was/is rather a political than a financial issue there.

      In my city, in Budapest we have problems as well. Here we have quite antagonistic situation between the mayor of Budapest and the mayors of the districts of Budapest. Now it seems that tax revenues in the city will be shared according to the proportion of incomes in the districts which increases the inequalities within the city. For example the inner districts have more revenues because of tourists.

      However I totally changed the topic. I am sorry.

    4. Your analysis is right on the mark. Americans want cheap gas and politicians who want to raise fuel taxes don't get reelected. And even though Republican candidates bemoan our high taxes, our income tax rates are the lowest in 50 or 60 years. It's ideology (free market solves all problems, less government the better) divorced from fact.

      California is, in part, suffering from a property tax law (Prop. 13) passed in 1978 which kept taxes on property based on the value of the property in 1978. So my mom's house is still taxed at 1978 rates even though the value of the house has gone up much higher than that.

      Also, states in the US, unlike the federal government, must have balanced budgets each year. So if the income shrinks, they have to cut expenditures. A few states with oil, like Alaska, are not having problems.

      No, you were on topic, adding some perspective to the US situation. It's politics more than economics.


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