Declaring a new era for motorists on the Riverside Freeway, the Orange County Transportation Authority agreed Monday to buy the controversial 91 Express Lanes, clearing the way for $1.6 billion in improvements to one of the most congested highways in Southern California.
The lanes, which run down the middle of the freeway for 10 miles, will still be a toll road, although rates likely will be reduced. Commuters now pay $4.75 each way at rush hour--one of the costliest per-mile tolls in the nation.
More important, the deal will allow Orange and Riverside counties to proceed with a 30-year plan to improve the Riverside Freeway with carpool lanes, new interchanges and widenings.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been earmarked for roadwork on the Riverside Freeway, though most of the money must still be raised through taxes and federal and state contributions.
"We are breaking the logjam," said Arthur T. Leahy, OCTA's chief executive officer, who helped negotiate the deal with the toll road's owners. "We want to move ahead as soon as possible. No improvement will be off the table."
The 91 Express Lanes, which run from the Riverside County line to the Costa Mesa Freeway, were built in the mid-1990s for $140 million.
They are operated by California Private Transportation Co., a partnership of Cofiroute, a French toll road company; Level 3 Communications and Granite Construction Co. OCTA board members, who set out to buy the road in September, unanimously approved the $207.5 million deal, which they described as a crucial step for repairing the only major highway linking Orange County--with its ample job market--to the fast-growing Inland Empire.
Under terms of the deal, OCTA will assume the toll operator's debt of $135 million and pay the company $72.5 million in cash. Authority officials now have 45 days to review the operator's financial records to determine whether the company is sound.
The sale is also contingent upon the Legislature granting OCTA the power to charge tolls. The purchase could be completed as early as July.
As part of the deal, Riverside County has agreed to drop a lawsuit against the toll operator and Caltrans, which challenged the constitutionality of the tollway's non-competition agreement. The case was set for trial late this year.
The purchase, officials said, should allow cooperation between Riverside and Orange counties. Relations have been strained by OCTA's early support for the Express Lanes and Riverside County's proposal to build a highway through the Cleveland National Forest into southern Orange County.
The deal will eliminate the controversial protection agreement between the private toll operator and Caltrans that prohibited major improvements to the Riverside Freeway.
The agreement covers 30 miles of the freeway, from Interstate 15 in Riverside County to the Los Angeles County line.
It was designed to protect the tollway's profits--the more congested the freeway, the more drivers would pay to ride the toll lanes. The protection agreement was to end in 2030.
Although the 91 Express Lanes reduced congestion when they opened six years ago, the tollway was eventually viewed as an obstacle to accommodating traffic growth on the Riverside Freeway.
Motorists now make about 250,000 to 270,000 trips daily on the freeway, the majority from the Inland Empire during morning and evening rush hours.
Because of the region's dramatic growth, the number of trips is projected at more than 400,000 a day by 2020. Although the increase is good for the toll business, it means slower speeds and longer commutes.
"The whole model is flawed," said Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, chairman of OCTA's board of directors and a critic of the Express Lanes. The tollway "relied on congestion and a lack of mobility to get people to pay. It's bad public policy."
Once the sale is completed, Orange and Riverside counties hope to work on almost 15 projects, such as fixing freeway choke points, adding lanes and improving or building interchanges.
Already, OCTA is adding an $8-million auxiliary lane to less than a mile of the freeway to relieve a bottleneck.
Officials said additional restriping and carpool lanes can be quickly added after the deal closes.
OCTA plans to continue the tollway operation until the private toll company's debt is paid. After a traffic and revenue study, Leahy said, the tolls will probably be reduced to attract more motorists. Tolls have been raised seven times in six years..
Officials from Riverside and Orange counties said they will seek state, federal and local funding, including money from Measure A, Riverside County's tax for transportation projects.
The Riverside County Transportation Commission has earmarked almost $500 million in Measure A funds for improvements to the Riverside Freeway. An extension of the tax will be on the November ballot.
"We can now spend money on asphalt instead of attorneys," said Riverside County Supervisor Bob A. Buster.