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Official Faces a Bumpy Ride to Completion of Toll Projects : Transportation: William C. Woollett Jr. presides over the first effort to bring major, publicly owned, user-fee highways to California.

February 19, 1990|JEFFREY A. PERLMAN | TIMES URBAN AFFAIRS WRITER

His friends call him Wild Bill. Some weekends he can be found roaming rustic Bommer Canyon in Irvine, or sailing a 16-foot catamaran off the coast, or river rafting in Colorado.

But at age 61, William C. Woollett Jr. says he has met his biggest challenge: serving as executive director of Orange County's Transportation Corridor Agencies, which plan to build a 70-mile, $2-billion network of three tollways by mid-decade.

"I like this job because it involves something that's never been done before," Woollett said in a recent interview.

Indeed, Woollett presides over the first effort to bring major, publicly owned user-fee highways to California.

Although Woollett may not be well-known outside of Irvine, where he served for 17 years as the city's first city manager, he is one of Orange County's highest-paid public officials, receiving $118,000 a year.

It's a pressure-filled job. John Meyer, Woollett's predecessor, quit last summer, citing job burnout. Developers and politicians clamor to have the roads built "yesterday"; environmentalists threaten to file lawsuits at every turn, and engineers spend the agencies' money for design work faster than developer fees can pay for it.

Woollett has been at the tollway post less than four months, but agency board members, transportation officials and developers already give him high marks for boosting morale and gaining control of what was an understaffed, unfocused operation.

"I have been tremendously impressed by him," said San Juan Capistrano Mayor Gary L. Hausdorfer, who chairs the Foothill-Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency board. "He is a very quiet and competent leader. He's a good organizer. He is a quick learner who very quickly grasps very complicated transportation issues."

For instance, Hausdorfer said, Woollett hired a financial expert--Wallace D. Kreutzen--as a deputy director to bring board members much better cost and cash flow analyses than they had before. Also, Woollett has been giving board members written, weekly updates on financial, environmental and construction issues.

In addition, final design contracts have been signed for portions of the tollways, with construction expected to begin later this year or in early 1991.

But Woollett still faces major hurdles, including:

* Foothill-area opposition to federal legislation that would permit Orange County's tollways to pass through park land, and an almost-certain environmental lawsuit aimed at blocking the planned San Joaquin Hills tollway bridge across Laguna Canyon.

* Continuing criticism from some public officials and developers who complain that the San Joaquin Hills tollway project is already two years behind schedule, even though the planned Foothill tollway is far ahead of its original timetable.

* Pending final tollway financing plans, with tollway officials still negotiating developer fees and offsetting credits for donated rights of way and grading.

Even Hausdorfer has acknowledged that tollway financing will be "very tight" and critically dependent, perhaps, on projections that motorists will be willing to pay tolls higher than the $2 to $3 maximums previously anticipated.

"It's not going to be easy," Hausdorfer said. But I'm confident the roads will be built."

Said Woollett: "I didn't come here to fail."

Seeking to head off potential financial problems, Woollett has discussed with some officials the possibility of borrowing money from the state or other local transportation agencies, who would be repaid when tolls are collected.

"There's no question in my mind that the lack of an organizational framework over there cost them some time," said Stanley T. Oftelie, executive director of the Orange County Transportation Commission. "But Woollett just got there, and he's definitely brought a high degree of professionalism with him."

Tollway employees say Woollett is best at bringing people of opposing views together and then quickly deciding what needs to be done.

But there are some people who remain unconvinced.

When the Tustin Hills Homeowners Assn. recently alleged that tollway officials were white-washing projected tollway noise levels in their community, Woollett promised to respond with the best scientific data available, even if it hurts his cause.

Said Jeffrey Katz, president of the homeowners' group: "We'll see. He listens to us, but it's clear that he knows who he works for. . . . He wants to get the (tollways) done."

Meanwhile, developers such as the Mission Viejo Co., which had griped last year that the tollways were taking too long to build, have been mostly quiet after a series of private briefings begun by Woollett's predecessor.

During such sessions, Woollett has developed a reputation for saying exactly what's on his mind, even to the influential Irvine Co., one of the agency's staunchest defenders and a major donor of rights of way.

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