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California: Toll Road Revenue Continues to Decline
Orange County, California officials seek to expand toll road that continues to experience double-digit drop in demand.

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The Federal Highway Administration reported that motorists drove 108 billion fewer miles last year, a 3.6 percent drop from 2007 levels. While significant, this reduction -- which has an impact on gasoline tax revenues -- is far less severe than the reduction in travel experienced by toll roads across the country. The continued drop in toll road use on well regarded facilities like Orange County, California's 91 Express Lanes brings into question the long-term sustainability of tolling as a form of revenue collection compared to the more modern gasoline excise tax.

"Today, after five years of ownership, the 91 Express Lanes continues to create national and international interest as a successful model of contemporary toll road operation," the Orange County Transportation Authority 2008 Annual Report boasted. "Fiscal Year 2008 witnessed the start of the current economic downturn, and the state of the economy no doubt exerted an influence on the number of vehicle trips."

Those trips fell off 17 percent in 2008 as 40,000 motorists each week decided paying nearly $10 to take a ten-mile trip was no longer worth it. Traffic has continued to decline 14 percent so far for 2009, bringing traffic to levels not seen since 2005. As a result, the road's revenue fell to $39,636,000 last year and is down 12 percent in the current fiscal year. In contrast, federal gas tax revenue grew slightly in February from the previous month. Although very little is spent to collect the federal gas tax at the distributor level, the cost of tolling personnel and equipment cuts into 23.7 percent of the tolls collected from drivers, forcing drivers to pay an extra $8 million each year to maintain the same level of service.

Despite the recent poor performance, Orange County Transportation Authority officials are preparing to expand the tolled portion of SR 91 another ten miles into Riverside County.

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