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Deficit, Fewer Clients Don't Dull 91 Operators' Pride

May 02, 1997|FRANK MESSINA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ANAHEIM — They have fewer clients than expected and are running a multimillion-dollar budget deficit. But operators of the 91 Express Lanes insist the world's first fully automated tollway is a success.

While declining to disclose some financial and traffic information, the California Private Transportation Co. said customer enthusiasm for the tollway outweighed a "slight" dip in projected use.

"People wondered whether we would make this work," managing director Gerald S. Pfeffer said. The toll road "works better than we expected. For motorists, it's a slam dunk."

In an annual report to Caltrans released Thursday, the company lists a $6.7-million net loss for the year. The deficit includes what the company said is a declared loss of $3.1 million used to reduce its tax burden.

Pfeffer said that for a start-up company, he was very happy with the toll road's performance. He expects the express lanes to edge into the black in 1998.

"We're pleased to be able to break even so soon," he said.

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Others were skeptical of the decision not to release information on debt service and original tollway use projections. Pfeffer said the information was withheld so it won't fall into the hands of potential competitors.

"I'm disappointed they were not more forthcoming" with original estimates for tollway use, said Bill Ward, chairman of the Orange County-based Drivers for Highway Safety. "I'm surprised they couldn't do better than that."

Among the facts and figures released in the Caltrans report: There were 5.7 million vehicle trips and 9.4 million passengers on the 91 Express Lanes in 1996.

The tollway earned total revenue of $7.07 million against $6.34 million in expenses, giving the company an operating income of $730,000 before paying debt service, according to the report.

About 70% of those using the 91 Express Lanes live in the Riverside and San Bernardino area.

Pfeffer would not release original projections for the number of expected vehicle trips but said the number of motorists using the pay lanes was down only slightly.

The company had raised fees in December to reduce heavy use of the tollway during peak periods.

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Pfeffer said the increased use occurred mainly during rush hours and that the overall amount of vehicles on the pay lanes were still below projections.

The release of 91 Express information follows a report on Wednesday that the San Joaquin Hills toll-road revenue was down 51% from original projections. Both Pfeffer and Transportation Corridor Agencies officials said a lingering Southern California recession was responsible for the dip in projected use.

"The question is, will [the 91 Express Lanes] make enough money to pay off the debt?" asked Jack Mallinckrodt, a member of Drivers for Highway Safety, a nonprofit group concerned with Orange County transportation issues. "They have a lot of growing to do before they make it, and I hope they do make it."

The report tells of possible future plans to extend the pay lanes to the Los Angeles County border and east to Interstate 15. Pfeffer said that a study looking at stretching 91 Express Lanes on the Orange County side will be completed by July.

The pay lanes operator will also study the possibility of adding intermediate access points along the 91 Freeway.

CPTC General Manager Greg Hulsizer said a company survey showed a customer satisfaction rate of over 95%.

"They feel like they're getting more freedom and sense of control," he said. "You never know what's ahead on the 91. They're buying that piece of mind."

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