California's transportation system is in such free fall that the only way to ease East Bay freeway gridlock is to build a privately funded toll way just for trucks, the Reason Foundation concludes in a report released today.

The libertarian-leaning Los Angeles think tank said private investors could build truck routes from the Port of Oakland to Milpitas and Tracy for $9.1 billion. Researchers said trucking companies would pay the $1.15-per-mile toll in return for driving goods to market at speed limit in triple-trailers.

Currently, triple trailers are illegal on California highways because of safety concerns. Bay Area traffic data show average freeway speeds during rush hour at 37 mph; that will likely slip to 32 mph by 2030.

By then, California's population is projected to top 50 million, and the current bumper-to-bumper Bay Area gridlock is expected to double. The region can barely maintain the freeway network and has all but abandoned new freeway construction. Although around 8 percent of commuters use mass transit, 80 percent of Bay Area transportation money goes toward the trains, busesReport says private

truck roads can help

and other forms of transit.

And that's when California has money. Since 2000, the Legislature has diverted an estimated $6 billion in fuel taxes from transportation projects.

The Reason Foundation, and many others, conclude that California can no longer afford to carry on with business as usual.

"We will become increasingly uncompetitive, and the quality of life will continue to deteriorate," said Robert W. Poole, director of transportation studies for the foundation.

His report points to successful toll ways in Canada, Europe and Australia and notes the success of so-called HOT lanes in Texas and Southern California. There, commuters pay a fee to drive in carpool lanes or privately funded toll roads to reach their destinations faster.

"California is unique among big states because it has no mechanism for this type of private investment," Poole said.

His proposal comes as toll talk has gathered steam. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has pushed for private toll roads, and the Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission says HOT lanes are the best way to tackle freeway congestion.

"We've got to do something, and these ideas are getting more currency," MTC spokesman Randy Renstchler said. "Largely as a result of totally neglecting traditional funding sources, this whole discussion has gotten more practical."

Even the hard-hit trucking industry is open to the idea.

"We support private investment in toll ways if it increases our efficiency. We support anything that would provide more productivity to offset costs," said Stephanie Williams, California Trucking Association's senior vice president.

But she pointed out that truckers, many of them independent operators, are barely scraping by with 2 percent profit margins.

"These guys can't raise capital to make triple-trailers, so we're talking about a whole new trucking industry," she said. "How about using highway fees for highways? That would be new."

The Reason Foundation's report is latest in a string of novel ideas to get Port of Oakland cargo to and from customers with minimal disruption to commuters. A few years ago, U.S. Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Alamo, floated an idea to carry goods by hovercraft.

Late last year, port officials negotiated a deal to send cargo to the Central Valley by rail, and truck it from there.

Even if California embraces the idea of private truck routes, Poole said it could be 10 to 12 years before they become a reality.

Contact Sean Holstege at

sholstege@angnewspapers.com.