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New Cross-Border Tiff Over Tollway

Riverside County wants a forced takeover of the private 91 Express Lanes. Orange County leaders say that's too drastic.


Under mounting pressure from daily commuters to unclog the swamped Riverside Freeway, government officials in that county disclosed Monday that they want the 91 Express Lanes condemned in an effort to open the private tollway to the public.

The Express Lanes, the only operating private toll road in California, have been roundly criticized in Riverside County, where commuters and politicians alike see them as a roadblock to improving snarled traffic for Orange County- and Los Angeles-bound drivers.

Transportation officials in Orange County, who had recently warmed to the idea of helping Riverside County find a solution to the bi-county congestion, recoiled Monday after hearing that Riverside was debating whether to take all or part of the lanes through a forced government purchase. The 10-mile-long tollway occupies the median alongside the regular freeway lanes.

News that Riverside County would like to pursue condemnation--a first step in government acquiring private property--angered members of the Orange County Transportation Authority. The notion of buying the toll lanes is not new, and OCTA leaders had shown a growing interest in seeking an appraisal to determine how much the lanes are worth. But on Monday, OCTA leaders said they would have no part of the appraisal if condemnation were the goal. The Express Lanes lie almost entirely in Orange County, and Riverside hoped to win Orange County's support for condemnation.

While OCTA board member and county Supervisor Tom Wilson said he believed government funding of an appraisal was "dollars down the drain," OCTA Chairwoman Laurann Cook said she was opposed to a government seizure of the tollway. "I've got some serious problems with condemnation," Cook said. "I don't want public funds going toward that."

The remarks came during a meeting of Riverside and Orange county transportation officials, as well as the owners of the toll lanes. The gathering was intended to seek solutions to the daily gridlock but instead underscored just how far apart the two counties stand on the issue.

Riverside County's push for a forced purchase of the tollway also confirmed the worst fears of its owners, the California Private Transportation Co.

"We've always suspected that this was their primary motivation," said Greg Hulsizer, the tollway's general manager. "This is just the first time that they've articulated it publicly."

For years, the Riverside Freeway has functioned as the main artery linking Riverside, Orange and Los Angeles counties. More than a quarter-million trips are made on the route each day, and traffic analysts say commute times will double in the next two decades, bringing motorists to a brake-pumping crawl.

Riverside County politicians, in particular, are feeling the heat from Riverside Freeway commuters, most of whom live in that county and commute to work in Orange or Los Angeles counties. Riverside County supervisors blame the private tollway for the gridlock, insisting that a franchise agreement with the state for the Express Lanes actually prevents improvements to the Riverside Freeway because they might reduce the number of drivers on the special lanes and thereby cut profits.

The 91 Express Lanes are one of four franchise agreements the state awarded 10 years ago. Since then, two of those four proposed toll routes have been abandoned and a third, a private toll operation in San Diego County, is still being planned.

Drivers on the Express Lanes must be equipped with a transponder, a device that debits the driver's account. There are no tollbooths, making it also the only automated tollway in the state.

On Monday, Riverside County Supervisor Bob Buster said the situation was "grossly inequitable," and he urged Orange County to take part in an appraisal of the toll operation. "The road is frozen," Buster said. "I think we're going to be forced to condemn portions of this route."

In addition to trying to force the sale of the Express Lanes, Riverside County has filed suit against the state, saying it violated the public trust when it granted the California Private Transportation Co. a franchise.

Orange County officials have taken a much less active approach to the traffic problem than their Riverside County counterparts. Some say also that it would be a mistake to open up the toll lanes to public traffic, arguing that it would worsen the commuter crush. According to figures released Monday by OCTA, average travel time for commuters in the regular freeway lanes would drop from 87 to 76 minutes if the toll lanes were opened to all. However, the average toll lane customer's commute would triple, from 25 to 76 minutes.

"Some members don't think it's a very positive thing for us to take the toll lanes down," said OCTA spokesman George Urch. "Everything just melts down."

In urging a forced purchase of the tollways, Riverside County officials may have succeeded in solidifying Orange County's opposition.

OCTA member and Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer rolled his eyes and grimaced after the meeting. Until the meeting, Spitzer had been trying to bring the two sides together and reach an agreement on appraising the toll lanes. Among other compromises, Spritzer had urged Riverside County to abandon its lawsuit.

"Buster really unleashed things," Spitzer said. "He wiped out any opportunity for people to go forward."

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