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Riverside County Pressures O.C.: Help Our Commuters

Officials set agenda with proposals; Build new roads, buy toll road lanes, but make plans to end traffic jams now.

November 27, 2000|MONTE MORIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Latasha Jimerson is enveloped in a sleepy sense of dread each morning as she and her husband, Micky, start their predawn crawl to Orange County.

With their infant daughter buckled into the back seat, a Bible on Latasha's lap and thousands of other drivers jockeying for position around them, the Jimersons' Ford Escort eventually merges with a 20-mph caravan of cars headed west on the Riverside Freeway.

"It's miserable," said the 24-year-old Moreno Valley resident. "We spend so much time commuting, our odds of getting in an accident are that much higher. I look at the other drivers and they're all sleepy. And we have a 7-month-old in the car. It's just so stressful."

The Riverside Freeway--these six lanes of asphalt heading west--connect the Orange County job market with workers who live in neighboring Riverside County. For some it is a case of affordability and housing. For others, it's a lifestyle decision. Either way, the daily commute is a misery.

So legendary, so hellish is the drive that Riverside County officials--prodded by enraged constituents--are determined to end the gridlock. That effort has taken two controversial forms so far.

First, they are pushing to shut down the 91 Express Lanes, a 10-mile private toll franchise that operates on the freeway median, and open the lanes to the public. Riverside County officials say the state made a deal with the devil when it approved the franchise because the toll road profits from gridlock. The more clogged the freeway, the better the odds the tollway will attract customers.

And second, Riverside County officials are moving into high gear on a proposal to bore a new freeway through the mountains of the Cleveland National Forest and into Orange County--a plan that has left environmentalists aghast.

Meanwhile, in stark contrast, the Orange County Transportation Authority has yet to act on the issues, a circumstance that some blame on the authority's lack of a permanent CEO. Riverside officials admit they've been more proactive than Orange County, but deny they're calling the shots. "I wouldn't say we're running the show, but we are setting the agenda," said Bob Buster, a Riverside County Transportation Commission member and county supervisor.

At least one Orange County transportation official admits that the failure to act could carry dire economic consequences for Orange County. Many of the commuters who travel the freeway are Orange County employees who have sought cheaper housing in the Inland Empire--a trend that threatens to double daily vehicle traffic along the freeway in 20 years and cut the already sluggish speeds in half.

"We need to support the people who commute to Orange County. It's through them that we derive our economic prosperity," said OCTA board member and County Supervisor Todd Spitzer. "But we don't have a road map or a game plan."

In the case of the Jimersons--who once rented in Garden Grove but moved east to Riverside in search of cheaper housing--the commute has already proved too much. Micky Jimerson now plans to quit his job as a cashier in Orange to work closer to home. Latasha Jimerson will leave her job at a cable TV company and return to school.

"My wife just hates this commute," said Micky Jimerson, 26. "The only reason we can put up with it right now is that we know we're going to end it shortly."

Riverside County officials insist that the first step in clearing congestion along the route is opening the 91 Express Lanes.

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Drivers on the Express Lanes system, which opened in 1995, carry radio transponders that are scanned as their cars glide through checkpoints. The toll--as high as $3.50 during rush hour--is electronically charged to the driver's account.

Toll road owners say they're practically giving customers their own private lane where they can sail past commuters and cut 20 minutes off their drive.

Riverside officials, though, say the toll lanes actually prevent them from widening the freeway. Under the toll road's franchise agreement with Caltrans, the state cannot make improvements to the freeway that might reduce toll road use, unless the improvements are for safety reasons. If the freeway is improved to the point that it is free-flowing, the argument goes, then the toll roads would suffer.

Next week, lawyers for Riverside County will argue that it was illegal for the state to permit the Express Lanes to build in the median. "The state was supposed to hold that land in public trust; it can't turn it over for private profit," said Jeffrey V. Dunn, a lawyer for the county.

Riverside County officials hope that the state or a nonprofit agency eventually will buy the toll lanes and scrap the noncompetition agreement.

"If it were up to me, I'd buy the lanes and open them all up to the public," said Assemblyman Rod Pacheco (R-Riverside). Pacheco wants the state to estimate the value of the toll operation as a first step in finding a buyer.

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