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Agency Urges State to Buy Orange County Tollways


California state lawmakers should buy the 91 Express Lanes and Orange County's three other toll roads and lift the tolls so everyone can drive for free, Orange County Transportation Authority members voted Monday.

"They have an obligation and a responsibility to purchase the entire tollway system in Orange County and make them free for everyone," said Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who serves on the authority board. "I don't think the lanes are working at all."

The surprise 10-1 vote, the board's first policy statement on the 91 toll lane dilemma, appears to be only symbolic.

Board members admitted that the odds are long that state legislators would spend more than $3.5 billion, more than a third of the state's surplus, to buy the 91 Express Lanes as well as the Foothill, Eastern and San Joaquin toll roads.

"Orange County and the OCTA would agree there are a lot of other pressing transportation problems that need to be fixed and financed before we look to purchasing all four toll roads," said Assemblywoman Marilyn Brewer (R-Newport Beach).

Brewer is co-sponsoring a bill, which is now on hold in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, that would seek an appraisal of the 91 Express Lanes, and form a governmental entity to buy the lanes from the private company that operates them. An attempt by a nonprofit agency to buy the lanes was rebuffed by state officials.

Several transportation authority officials expressed concerns that fewer commuters would take the competing Eastern toll road if the state were to buy the 91 Express Lanes.

"I don't think that you should pick and choose. You can't just buy out the 91 Express Lanes and think it's not going to have an effect on the others," said Susan Withrow, a Mission Viejo City Council member who serves as chairwoman of one of Orange County's two toll road boards.

County Supervisor Tom Wilson, who also sits on the county's toll road boards, said the state would have little incentive to rescue one of the other toll roads if it bought the 91 Express Lanes.

Transportation authority board members voted to remain neutral on the bill that Brewer is sponsoring with Assemblyman Rod Pacheco (R-Corona). But if the bill advances, members said, they didn't want the state using Orange County's transportation allocation to buy the 91 Express Lanes.

The authority board also voted to ask lawmakers to amend the Pacheco bill.

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