Developers hope to revive a contentious plan to build a $1-billion private toll road through the heart of Orange County, linking the hectic Orange Crush interchange with the San Diego Freeway in Costa Mesa.
Long considered dead by many officials and policymakers, the so-called SR-57 Extension was one of four private toll road franchises approved by the Legislature in 1989--an early experiment in free market transportation.
Now, however, with just five months remaining before that franchise expires, the president of American Transportation Development and Caltrans confirmed Friday that they are negotiating a possible extension of the contract.
"We believe there's a tremendous amount of potential in this project," said Grant R. Holland, president of ATD, a joint venture between Interwest Co. of Arizona and Idaho's Washington Group International. "It's something that's badly needed. This area has some of the worst traffic in the country."
The firm's lobbying effort has been substantial, according to state transportation officials, and the developer is expected to meet soon with the Orange County Transportation Authority to solicit support for the project, although that board is divided on the issue.
The matter has placed state transportation officials in an awkward position as well, as word of negotiations has threatened to revive an old controversy involving disclosures that the toll contracts prohibit Caltrans from repairing public roadways considered "competition" for the toll roads.
On Friday, Caltrans officials refused to discuss the negotiations and were reluctant even to acknowledge their discussions with the developer. Holland, however, said his company has offered to negotiate a new agreement that would allow the state to repair and upgrade nearby roads previously considered to be competition. Holland said his company wanted to ensure only that the state did not build a new freeway parallel to the proposed toll road.
The developer has proposed elevating the roadway above the Santa Ana River, but suggested that it could run along a bank instead. Proponents say that after construction, it would be placed in the hands of a nonprofit corporation that would collect the tolls. Holland predicted the toll road would reduce congestion on nearby roadways by 10% to 15%.
While a number of Orange County transportation officials say residents should welcome any relief from gridlock, others say the effects on their own cities and the environment would be too great.
On Friday, the transportation authority's chairwoman said she had already been contacted by the developer for support but couldn't offer any. Laurann Cook, who also sits on the Fountain Valley City Council, said the proposed toll road threatened to pollute the Santa Ana River and would dump unwanted traffic onto the already congested streets of Fountain Valley.
"I know they're going to ask the OCTA for support, but I'm biased on this issue," Cook said. "I can't support it."
The agency's vice chairman, however, offers a different view.
"Whether it's building a toll road or a public road, it's definitely something we need to look at," said Mike Ward, an Irvine city councilman and transportation board member.
The roadway would run almost entirely through Santa Ana, and for a distance of almost 11 miles. Officials and residents in that city are mobilizing against the project, saying it would cause the river environmental troubles and disturb neighborhoods, particularly the new River Glen housing development. Already, the proposal has been turned into a campaign issue in the Santa Ana City Council race.
"The city would not be in favor of this project," said City Manager David Ream.
The construction of private toll roads was controversial even when the Legislature approved the idea in 1989 as a way of improving transportation in a time of limited funding.
Since then, only one of four proposed private toll roads has been constructed--the 91 Express Lanes on the Riverside Freeway--and many observers have considered the roadway a failure because the owner has tried to sell it.
Of the remaining franchises, a proposal to build a 10-mile toll road near Otay Mesa in San Diego County is just now gaining environmental approval and another planned tollway in Alameda and Contra Costa counties is considered dead.
Tollway supporters including Holland insist that the roads can be successful, and point to the fact that the 91 Express Lanes are now turning a profit. However, some transportation officials say that in the larger scheme, the tollways have failed to alleviate gridlock, as first envisioned, and remain underused.