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Tollway Owners in Driver's Seat

Orange County: Caltrans is virtually powerless to ease congestion on adjoining freeways because of agreements that promote gridlock.

November 25, 2001|DAN WEIKEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County's toll road operators thrive on gridlock. The more congested the public highways and the more miserable the commute, the more they can charge motorists to use their less-crowded pavement.

They even have special agreements with the state to keep it that way for decades to come.

Under so-called noncompete clauses, toll road operators can veto improvements to public highways--such as new lanes--if the work would threaten to take customers away from the pay-as-you-go roads.

In growing metropolitan areas with bumper-to-bumper traffic that begins to thicken before dawn, the restrictions mean the California Department of Transportation and local governments are largely powerless to ease congestion on public highways that run close by Orange County's toll roads.

So broad are these protections that the state could be prevented from making freeway improvements to accommodate motorists headed to a proposed commercial airport at the former El Toro Marine base. An effort to eliminate major freeway choke points in the heart of Orange County could be in jeopardy. And widening the Riverside Freeway, one of the most congested highways in the state, is virtually impossible for another 29 years or until traffic thickens to near-gridlock.

"Not everyone is happy about them," said Cypress City Councilman Tim Keenan, a member of the Orange County Transportation Authority board of directors. "Toll roads are an evil necessity. They were an innovative solution to build freeways, but the burden of their success should not fall on all the drivers in Orange County."

Orange County has more toll roads than anywhere else in California. There are 10 miles of pay lanes along the center of the Riverside Freeway and 51 miles of tollways operated by the Transportation Corridor Agencies. The $3.7-billion, corridor-agency system includes the Eastern, Foothill and San Joaquin Hills tollways, as well as a short stretch of Laguna Canyon Road.

The protection agreements with the state could stand in the way of widening at least a third of the county's 222 miles of freeways, including 30 miles of the Riverside Freeway and stretches of the Santa Ana and San Diego freeways through central and south Orange County.

The advent of the toll roads and the protection clauses date to another era when the state had little money to spend on freeway work. Supporters of the tollways say the problems caused by the noncompete clauses are small compared to the congestion that would have overwhelmed existing freeways had the roads not been built. Since 1975, Orange County's population has jumped from 1.7 million to more than 2.8 million. The Inland Empire's population has more than doubled in that time.

To attract financing for new roads, public-private partnerships were developed in the late 1980s and early '90s with special agreements to guarantee the tollways some degree of success so investors would be willing to buy bonds or lend money for the projects.

"These highways would have never been built or never built in the time frame we built them in," said Walter D. Kreutzen, the corridor agency's chief executive. "There is still a shortage of state funds for highways."

Kreutzen and other tollway operators point out that despite the protection agreements, some public transportation projects are still possible. Rail service, carpool lanes for three or more people, interchange improvements, and safety and operational improvements can still go forward, he said.

But skeptics remain, including state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer. More than a decade ago, Lockyer, then a state senator, warned his colleagues that restricting highway improvements and new road construction to accommodate toll roads could come back to haunt California.

"What we now have is a two-tiered system: a road system for the wealthy and a deteriorating one for the rest of us," Lockyer said. "The toll road is just a polite form of highway robbery."

The most controversial protection clause involves the privately owned 91 Express Lanes that run for 10 miles from northern Anaheim to the Riverside County line. The $130-million project opened in 1995.

Since then, the toll lanes--two in each direction--have offered paying motorists relief from the crowded Riverside Freeway.

Every day, 270,000 trips are made through this stretch of the 91, turning the freeway into a virtual parking lot during the morning and evening rush hours. The crush has been a bonanza for California Private Transportation Co., which operates the private lanes. Tolls have been hiked seven times in five years, and still two of the four private lanes are reaching capacity in the evening. Express Lane commuters now pay more than $8 a day for a round trip at crunch time and log about 33,000 daily vehicle trips.

Under its pact with Caltrans, California Private Transportation Co. can veto highway improvements along 30 miles of the Riverside Freeway if the work threatens to take customers away from the toll lanes.

Tollway Becomes Public in 2030

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