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Agencies Must Clear Air Over Toll Roads : Plan to Convert Newport Coast Drive Stirs Fears

October 09, 1994

The question of toll collection along Newport Coast Drive when the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor comes on line continues to trouble many commuters and residents who believed that the road was going to be free. With litigation and mistrust in the air, and with some very visible construction now going on for commuters to see, the Transportation Corridor Agencies need to make a clearer statement of intention to resolve this matter satisfactorily.

There still are concerns about traffic congestion along Coast Highway. There is even some alarm that motorists will flood Irvine seeking alternative free routes to the San Diego Freeway. At the heart of the matter is lingering confusion over the facts.

The Transportation Corridor Agencies said the public never was misled over whether there would be tolls along Newport Coast Drive. An opinion rendered some time ago by the state attorney general seemed to uphold the decision to collect tolls. Toll opponents, however, are right that the intention to collect tolls on this section of the road, while perhaps there in the fine print, was never fully or satisfactorily aired. Moreover, the spirit of the enabling legislation for tollways appears to have been given an interpretation that is very generous to the agency's position on collecting tolls.

That has to do with what constitutes an alternative free route. The legislative intent was not to replace existing free routes, but to have them stand as alternatives while viable free routes remained. The agency's contention that Coast Highway and the San Diego Freeway remain as the parallel free routes for motorists who don't want to pay a toll on Newport Coast Drive is a bit of a stretch. True, these routes will be available, but they hardly are convenient options for the people who now benefit from Newport Coast Drive.

Some relief may be in the works as an environmental review has been undertaken of the extension of Culver Drive in Irvine at a point well past the Turtle Rock and UCI communities to hook up with Newport Coast Drive. Irvine's hope for this extension has been independent of talk about a bypass route. It is part of the city's efforts to conform with the county's master plan for roads. But the implication of that route is not lost on those searching for a politically viable bypass. If properly configured, drivers wanting to avoid tolls might exit Newport Coast Drive and take the new extension of Culver, only to make their way eventually to MacArthur Drive when the agency completes the extension of Ford Road. Irvine has been negotiating with the county to front the cost of the Culver extension.

For now, the issue of the tolls remains hopelessly mired in politics, with campaigns well underway for the state Assembly, and looming ahead for the vacated Senate seat of Marian Bergeson. Last month, a group of residents sued the agency to block the conversion of the Newport Coast Drive section into a tollway.

The agency may be so accustomed to an adversarial position with opponents on environmental grounds that it may not fully recognize an opportunity to ease the concerns of regular commuters. A reasonable bypass--that is, one that does not detour the public all over creation--ought to provide an acceptable solution for most who don't want to pay. The Transportation Corridor Agencies need to make it clear that they are firmly committed to such a resolution and, as confusing as all these routes are, to do what they can to clarify the options for those not wanting to pay a toll on Newport Coast Drive.

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