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Give the Public-Private Toll Road Experiment More Time to Work

The county's 70-mile tollway network is not flawless, but freeway traffic would be worse without it.

February 11, 2001|MIKE WARD | Mike Ward is chairman of the Orange County Transportation Authority. He is on the Irvine City Council

Over the past year, California's unique experiment in public-private toll road projects has become the casualty of parochial political turf wars, unsettled public transportation policy, and the inertia of a decidedly West Coast mentality that public transportation should be free.

The turmoil comes at a most inopportune time and without regard to the bigger picture. Over the next 20 years, if most major studies have it right, Southern California will be set upon by an unprecedented swarm of automobiles. It is likely that the region's impressive network of freeways will be pressed to the brink of collapse.

The numbers are sobering. By 2020 an additional 6 million people will move to Southern California, 400,000 of them to Orange County. More than a million new housing units will occupy the Southern California landscape. And, some 5.5 million jobs will be created.

The traffic implications of this massive growth are ominous. Even when assuming the completion of the more than 1,600 statewide transportation projects Caltrans has planned, the percentage of lane miles that will experience gridlock will more than double from current levels. The truly dark news is that those 1,600 projects are expected to cost state taxpayers $200 billion over the next 10 years, yet only $100 billion will be available.

But it's not as if this is breaking news. As long ago as 1987, Orange County leaders saw the storm clouds on the horizon and urged Sacramento lawmakers to pass legislation authorizing the birth of the Transportation Corridor Agencies. The TCA, a joint powers authority, was given the green light to plan, develop and operate a 67-mile toll road network in Orange County financed through private bond issues.

Two years later, Gov. Pete Wilson signed into law AB 680 authorizing the development of four private toll road projects. The law paved the way for private-sector concerns to finance and develop badly needed freeway projects in exchange for a 35-year franchise to operate the highways as toll facilities.

In just 13 years, these two pieces of legislation have parented the development of about 70 miles of new highways in Orange County. The San Joaquin Hills tollway, the Eastern and Foothill toll roads, and the 91 Express Lanes carry nearly half a million automobiles every day. Ultimately, these highways will be turned over to Caltrans once their construction debt is retired. But had the legislation authorizing their birth never happened, these highways would not exist. We can only imagine what traffic would be like without them.

Nevertheless, the controversy surrounding these public-private transportation projects continues. A new crop of Sacramento lawmakers and a few local politicians question the wisdom of earlier decisions to advance the public-private solution. They demand that the 91 Express Lanes be taken over for free public use, which actually wouldn't shorten trips for commuters.

These same politicians have little appetite for the noncompetition clauses Caltrans agreed to in contracts with toll operators. Yet without these clauses protecting the financial interests of the private investment community, the toll roads would simply occupy our imaginations.

It is fantasy to presume that California's still-young exploration of public-private highway development would be a flawless endeavor. Nonetheless, it is folly to torpedo the entire exercise simply because it has encountered a few potholes.

Cooler heads should prevail. On the one hand, lawmakers must know and accept that California clearly lacks the financial resources to develop the necessary highway capacity demanded by the huge growth just over the horizon. Without the aid of the private sector, California's freeways will grind to a halt, its economy will sink into stagnation.

The operators of the 91 Express Lanes have joined with regional agencies in five major studies designed to address the elimination of several choke points in Riverside County. These studies generally agree that extending the Express Lanes into Riverside County would mitigate significantly the current problem faced by motorists on the Riverside Freeway. They also agree that more needs to be done in Riverside County to solve the problem. Chief among the solutions is to resolve the county's chronic jobs-to-housing imbalance.

The ominous mobility challenges that confront California over the next generation are simply too dangerous to ignore. The roughly 70 miles of existing toll highways demonstrate that collaboration through public-private transportation partnerships has a future. One hopes that is so not only for roads but for high-speed transportation systems and local transit as well. We may have to try a little harder to make them work, but they are our best hope for our future mobility.

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