Will California’s Freeways No Longer Be Free?

A $77 billion infrastructure-maintenance tab may take its, er, toll.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

They’re know the world over as freeways, but they soon may cost you something. In his State of the State address, California Governor Jerry Brown raised the specter, however obliquely, of tolls on some of the Golden State’s hundreds of thousands of paved roads. Faced with a $77 billion deferred-maintenance bill on the state’s brittle infrastructure, Brown suggested that the budget gap must be closed—somehow. The somehows may be legion, but they really boil down to two options: direct charges of road users (i.e., tolls) or regressive, across-the-board means (taxes). Either way, a sacrosanct aspect of California motoring—penny-free passage on public roads, notwithstanding the occasional bridge (and peninsula inhabited by Clint Eastwood and Delahayes)—is likely to change.

The relevant passage from Governor Brown’s speech today in Sacramento:

We have no choice but to maintain our transportation infrastructure. Yet, doing so without an expanded and permanent revenue source is impossible. That means at some point, sooner rather than later, we have to bite the bullet and enact new fees and taxes for this purpose. Ideology and politics stand in the way, but one way or another the roads must be fixed.

Ken James/Bloomberg via Getty Images

California communities have long struggled with the question of instituting tolls, both to ease congestion on crowded thoroughfares and to raise funds (if only for Caltrans). Some of the FasTrak lanes that have been rolled out, which collect tolls electronically, are maligned as “Lexus Lanes” for their prohibitive pricing.

From The Drive’s bunker in Brooklyn—where we’d spend $8 to tunnel into Manhattan; $15 to return to Manhattan after inhaling sliders at White Manna in Hackensack; then a further $8 to tunnel back from Manhattan to Brooklyn—we could easily prescribe a philosophy of “suck it up, Cali.” But we also live and operate amid one of the continent’s densest urban environments, and are (usually) served by America’s most robust public transportation apparatus. To drive in New York City, more often than not, results from a choice to drive in New York City.

All of which is to say, California, we feel your impending pain.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images