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California and the West

Road May Ease Inland Empire Commute

Highway: Opening offers alternative to Riverside, Costa Mesa freeways. It remains to be seen if motorists will pay $3.25 a trip.


The Eastern Toll Road--a 17-mile stretch of highway connecting the bedroom communities of the Inland Empire to the job centers of Los Angeles and Orange counties--will be dedicated today, offering motorists gridlock-free commuting at a price.

But at up to $3.25 a trip, it remains to be seen how many will pay, even though the alternative--crawling along the Riverside and Costa Mesa freeways--is considered one of California's most grueling commutes.

The fate of the $1.8-billion Eastern Toll Road has implications beyond Southern California, where world famous traffic troubles and a shortage of public funds for road construction have created a laboratory of sorts for a new generation of pay roads.

When the toll road opens to the public Sunday, Orange County--which has taken the lead in developing toll roads in Southern California--will have 32 miles of pay roads as well as the California 91 express lanes. The express lanes allow paying drivers to use extra lanes built in the median of the Riverside Freeway.

The efforts have met with lukewarm success, and officials have struggled to convince commuters to use the toll roads.

The opening of the Eastern Toll Road is being watched closely by transportation planners nationwide, some of whom say that if a toll road can't thrive here, perhaps it won't be accepted elsewhere.

"The jury is still out on these toll roads," said Robert Poole, president of the Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles-based think tank that has studied the highways. "Failure of any kind sends a chill through the whole industry."

The Eastern--on paper at least--should be a hit with the public because it is the only alternative to a traffic nightmare expected to worsen with future growth. Planners predict a rush-hour time savings of 30 minutes on a trip from Corona to the Irvine Spectrum. That commute now averages about an hour and 20 minutes.

But Southern California's car culture clearly hasn't embraced the concept of paying to use the highway, even though toll roads have been a fixture of many Eastern states for decades.

"This is the land of the freeway," said Pete Fielding, a UC Irvine professor who is a former director of the school's Institute of Transportation Studies. "We dislike tollways because they restrict our choices, and we love freeways because they increase our choices."

But some experts say that there simply isn't money available for the grand freeway projects of the past, leaving toll collections as perhaps the only way to build major highways.

Peter Samuel, editor and publisher of Maryland-based Toll Roads Newsletter, says that "what people fail to realize is that the issue isn't a choice of toll road or a freeway. The issue is a toll road or no road."

The prospect of no money for new roads, coupled with a booming population, convinced a group of Orange County executives a decade ago to turn to toll roads.

Their solution was to raise private money through tax-free municipal bonds. The Transportation Corridors Agency--a public "sunset" agency that will cease operations when the bill for the roads is paid--was created to build 67 miles of toll roads, at a cost of more than $4 billion.

But the business of toll roads has had its problems, from the cost of making environmental mitigations to the mixed response from commuters.

The original traffic projections for Orange County's first toll road--the San Joaquin Hills--had to be reduced significantly and the debt refinanced in 1997 after traffic fell far short of expectations. A year after the road opened in November 1996, traffic still lagged more than 40% behind projections. But the number of users has been steadily climbing in recent months.

The opening of the Eastern Toll Road--which affords drivers vistas of office towers and the ocean--is a year ahead of schedule. The road runs through largely undeveloped land in the foothills between Yorba Linda and Irvine. Many morning commuters will come from the housing developments of Riverside and San Bernardino counties on their way to jobs in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

The Inland Empire is a mecca of affordable homes but has a relatively weak job base, causing heavy traffic across suburban county lines. Officials have discussed a variety of solutions to the gridlock, including one controversial proposal to dig a tunnel under the Santa Ana Mountains.

Few question that an already bad commuting climate in Southern California will get worse. Fielding, the UC Irvine professor, said that some estimates have commute times as high as three hours by 2020. So the construction of new roads, he said, is not just about public policy and urban planning for Southern Californians, it goes straight to the issue of quality of life.

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