SACRAMENTO — Caltrans director Jose Medina, under fire over his handling of an Orange County toll road deal, defended for the first time Tuesday his decision to quietly settle a lawsuit that postponed improvements to the notoriously snarled Riverside Freeway.
Medina appeared in Sacramento before a panel of lawmakers that demanded answers on why Caltrans agreed to delay construction along a hazardous stretch of the 91, as well as Medina's decision to approve a controversial sale of the toll lanes along the freeway to a nonprofit group.
"I feel that I made the right decision on both instances given the advice and recommendation that was given to me," Medina said. "I do not want to second-guess myself."
During the joint legislative hearing, Medina and his top assistants were grilled by lawmakers who challenged their decisions to abandon safety improvements on the 91 and settle a $100-million lawsuit brought by the private toll lanes operator in March.
California's top lawyer, Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, said he saw no "impropriety" on Caltrans' part in settling the lawsuit, which cleared the way for the toll road operators to make $70 million to $90 million on the sale of the toll lanes to a nonprofit group.
"There might be some debate about wisdom, but I see no impropriety," Lockyer said. "But it seems to me they didn't put up much of a fight."
Medina has been under harsh criticism since news of the 91 toll lanes sale surfaced last year, and the deal has since been scrapped. Gov. Gray Davis, the man who appointed him, offered his first public assessment Tuesday of the Caltrans chief, whom he tapped in December 1998 to lead the agency's more than 20,000 employees and $8-billion budget.
"He has done some good things. He has made some mistakes," Davis said at a news conference on another subject. Davis refused to comment on Medina's future, saying he hasn't had time to focus on whether Medina should remain in his job.
The legislative hearing, which lasted 5 1/2 hours with 20 senators and assembly members attending, was aimed at getting to the bottom of the toll road deal. But it also sparked a full-scale debate about the wisdom of allowing private toll roads to be built in the first place.
In particular, legislators focused on the 1993 agreement signed by Caltrans that led to "noncompete clauses," which forbade the state from making improvements on the adjacent free lanes.
Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Northridge) suggested the state condemn the lanes, buy the franchise rights of the current operators and open the lanes for all.
"It is a state-sanctioned monopoly," McClintock said. "If we allow it to continue, then we are creating a new generation of robber barons."
Others said the state shouldn't touch the lanes, which continue to lose money.
"We'd have a heck of a time with the lottery if we agreed to buy back the tickets that didn't win," quipped Assemblyman John Longville (D-Rialto).
Lockyer and others said the toll lanes were just a bad idea to begin with.
"It was a mistake," Lockyer said. "It was a terrible policy, and we shouldn't continue down that road. When you make people stop and take out money, I regard that as a polite form of highway robbery."
Caltrans defended its decisions regarding the 91 Express Lanes, one of four private roads envisioned in 1989 legislation approved at a time the state had little money for building roads. They said the original contract with the private toll road project gave them little choice but to settle the lawsuit and back off the improvements.
But state Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana) chastised Medina, saying the decision to settle the lawsuit made a bad situation worse.
"In my view the settlement agreement actually puts even more restrictions on Caltrans," Dunn said.
The "noncompete" restrictions the state agency agreed to in order to entice private road builders to the state highway system upset lawmakers the most.
"In the final analysis, this whole toll road thing is a scam," said state Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City). "I wish that I could come up with a more statesmanlike way to describe this, but I really can't."
Murray said state legislators convinced themselves a decade ago that private entrepreneurs were needed to build roads because the state was strapped. But, he pointed out, the experiment backfired quickly. The project, he said, was "horribly stupid, misadvised and borderlines on moronic."
Assemblyman Rod Pacheco (R-Riverside) urged lawmakers not to rule out a buyout too quickly. He told lawmakers that he is sponsoring legislation to form a new agency--overseen by Riverside County and Orange County officials--to issue bonds and buy the lanes from the California Private Transportation Co., the toll road operator.
A delegation from Riverside County echoed Pacheco's concerns, calling the toll road experiment "reckless," and said it endangered thousands of Riverside County commuters every day.
Greg Hulsizer, general manager of the toll road operation, who has argued that the toll lanes have actually led to a decrease in accidents, said the lanes were for sale but they weren't looking for a state purchase. He said the group erred by "hunkering down" and not answering questions when the deal became a firestorm of controversy.
"Obviously, we've learned a very tough lesson here about being a private partner," Hulsizer said.
He said Pacheco's idea of a new agency to buy the lanes might work out unless "it would be used to drive down the price. Then no, we're not interested."
Times staff writer Dan Morain contributed to this report.