"This is a relatively new situation that developed following the opening of both the Route 91 and Route 241 Toll Facilities," one report says. Engineers express a high level of concern about startling increases in accidents when the road is dark or wet and urge further research be done to determine what role, if any, the toll roads played in the increase.
Local officials believed improvements were critically needed on the heavily congested link, securing $30.6 million to do the work, which was originally scheduled to begin late this year and be completed in 2002.
But it wasn't that simple.
A restrictive contract the state had granted to the 91 Express Lanes prohibited anything but safety improvements to state highways that competed with business on the toll lanes. The toll lane operator, California Private Transportation Co., immediately protested, saying the work would siphon cars from their toll lanes.
The work, they said, would harm their business, cutting revenue on the road by as much as 50%. Such a loss would have made the road a risky investment, thwarting the private company's plans to refinance the road, according to letters written by toll lane officials to Caltrans.
The toll lanes operator dismissed as "laughable" Caltrans accident statistics used to bolster a safety justification for the roadwork, according to a letter from its attorney to a Caltrans lawyer written in November 1998.
"The accident statistics Caltrans cites hardly [show] a severe safety situation; at most, they indicate an excess . . . of fender bender accidents," wrote Matthew Johnson, an attorney for the toll lanes group.
"But even if Caltrans' statistics [showed] the existence of a 'real' safety issue," Johnson wrote, "they would not justify construction."
It was the exact scenario some lawmakers had warned could take place, when they protested passage of the 1989 law that made private road building possible in the state.
Over the next two years, local Caltrans officials in Orange and Riverside counties pushed the project forward while toll lane representatives appealed to Caltrans headquarters to back off. In March 1999, the toll lanes group filed its $100-million suit against Caltrans for violating the franchise agreement.
Caltrans sources familiar with the lawsuit say some officials believed they were on "shaky legal ground."
And internal documents show some hesitation within Caltrans about how traffic engineers calculated the project's safety benefits. A confidential memo written in June, while Caltrans was still actively defending the road improvements, showed concern that the earlier report might have been "distorting" the safety benefits of the road improvements.
In that same memo, however, an unidentified traffic operations engineer wrote that the lanes were still needed.
"This is not to say that auxiliary lanes cannot reduce the number of accidents," the engineer wrote. "It most likely will reduce the congestion type accidents--rear-end and sideswipe accidents are the most common in congested highway locations."
Staff writer Ray F. Herndon contributed to this report.
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Safety Improvements Scrapped
Top Caltrans officials delayed plans to add auxiliary lanes to the Riverside Freeway, although engineers said the lanes could reduce accidents. The agency's own crash data found injury and fatal accidents had increased as much as 124% near the westbound entrance since the toll facility had opened.