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O.C. Set to Buy Tollway Along 91

Transit: Agency agrees to pay the private operator $207 million for the Express Lanes. Board will vote Monday.


Orange County transportation officials have struck a deal to buy the controversial 91 Express Lanes in a bid to speed improvements on the chronically congested Riverside Freeway linking Orange, Los Angeles and Riverside counties.

Under the deal reached Friday, the Orange County Transportation Authority would pay California Private Transportation Co. $207.5 million for the 10 miles of toll lanes running from Riverside County to the Costa Mesa Freeway.

The OCTA board of directors will consider the deal in a closed session Monday. Board Chairman Todd Spitzer and director Michael Ward said Saturday that the deal is likely to pass.

Toll road officials could not be reached for comment.

The Express Lanes, which opened in 1996, have provided relief for commuters, but the project has come under fire because of a noncompete clause, which prohibits public transportation agencies from adding lanes or improving the freeway without compensating the company.

Los Angeles Times Monday April 29, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 Column 1 A2 Desk 2 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Express Lane--An article in the April 21 California section about the Riverside Freeway's privately run express lanes incorrectly described the agencies that operate Orange County's other toll roads. The San Joaquin, Eastern and Foothill tollways are run by the Transportation Corridor Agencies, two public agencies created in 1986.

The company sued in 1999 when Caltrans tried to add lanes to a stretch of the freeway, which it contended would divert customers from the toll lanes. Later, Riverside County sued the private operator, saying the agreement with the state was unconstitutional.

"You have lawsuits going back and forth and meanwhile drivers are sitting on those lanes unable to move," Ward, an Irvine councilman, said Saturday. "This breaks the logjam."

Last September, Ward, then OCTA chairman, sought ways to reduce congestion on the Riverside Freeway, a major commuter route for the rapidly growing Inland Empire. The noncompete clause, however, made improvements costly.

Earlier this year, OCTA agreed to pay $4 million in public funds to California Private Transportation for the right to ease a bottleneck along a 1,000-yard stretch of freeway just east of Coal Canyon Road.

OCTA began negotiating in December to buy the toll lanes, which cost about $135 million to build, in the early 1990s. Spitzer said $207.5 million is a fair price to turn the lanes back into public hands.

"It's like buying a house," said Spitzer, who is running for the state Assembly in a district that lies mainly in Riverside County. "You don't get to buy houses for what people paid for them 10 years ago....

"If we had to go out today and build that road ourselves, it's equivalent to what we're paying."

An earlier effort to buy the tollway by a nonprofit agency died over the $274-million asking price.

Ward and Spitzer said buying the turnpike was a better alternative than doling out millions to the company for every improvement project. Spitzer said 250,000 vehicles use the freeway each day.

"If we don't do something about it today, then there is no hope

Under the agreement, OCTA will assume the toll road's $135-million debt and make a one-time payment of $72.5 million, which includes the $4 million OCTA agreed to pay in January for the improvement near Coal Canyon Road.

The state Legislature must still grant OCTA approval to charge commuters a toll. OCTA officials said they plan to begin lobbying the Legislature next week.

If the purchase goes through, OCTA officials said they will look into lowering tolls, now about $8 for a round trip during rush hour, and making the Express Lanes free for carpoolers with more than three people per vehicle.

Spitzer also said the OCTA purchase would free up funds from an upcoming Riverside County ballot measure to spend $498 million on freeway improvements, which is contingent on the noncompete clause being eliminated.

The protection clauses were built into contracts negotiated between the state and private road developers more than a decade ago, when California lacked funds for transportation projects. Private operators argued that freeway improvements would take customers from the toll roads, so they needed to protect their investments.

The protection clause for the 91 Express Lanes covers 30 miles, from the border of Los Angeles and Orange counties to Interstate 15 in Riverside County.

Orange County transportation officials face similar clauses with the Eastern, Foothill and the San Joaquin Hills toll roads, all operated by private companies.

OCTA officials said Saturday they had no plans to buy more private roads.

Two years ago, the transit authority tried to have the state buy all four toll roads including the 91 Express Lanes, but the $3.5-billion price tag was too high.

Spitzer said having a public agency run the toll roads will benefit commuters.

The private operator's "goal was to maximize profit," he said. "Our goal at OCTA would be to maximize mobility, maximize the number of vehicles that are able to use those toll lanes."

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