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Opening Up the 91 Freeway

April 28, 2002

Companies that operate private toll roads are all about maximizing profit for shareholders. Their interests are at odds with the vast majority of motorists who don't use or can't afford pricey pay lanes. The Orange County Transportation Authority's decision to buy the controversial 91 Express Lanes will lead to practical solutions for more than 250,000 motorists who approach daily commutes on the Riverside Freeway with a sense of dread.

OCTA's $207.5-million agreement to buy 10 miles of toll lanes is an expensive solution, and the riders are going to have to pay, at least for a while. But when the state passes legislation allowing OCTA to collect tolls needed to pay for the purchase, the California Private Transportation Co. no longer will be able to veto improvements to the Riverside Freeway.

Legislators in Sacramento during the early 1990s viewed toll roads as a win-win situation. The public-private partnerships crafted during an era of tight budgets were touted as a neat solution to ever-increasing demand for more highway lanes. The 91 Express Lanes did produce desperately needed pavement along a 10-mile stretch of the congested Riverside Freeway.

The 91 Express Lanes unexpectedly added to the traffic jams in the late 1990s, though, when Caltrans unveiled a plan to improve traffic flow along a stretch of the highway near Coal Canyon Road.

The toll lanes operator sued the state, arguing that a noncompetition clause required payments when improvements on public lanes siphoned off its paying customers. The private company demanded a $4-million ransom before the state could add lanes along a 1,000-yard stretch of freeway.

The for-profit operator's ability to scuttle common sense illuminated the faulty logic underlying the private roads. Highways are more than a conduit for harried commuters. A freeway that turns into a parking lot during key commuting hours also represents a serious economic bottleneck for Orange and Riverside counties.

The toll lanes' operator used the noncompetition clause as a lever to create artificial demand for its services. A strategy that benefited only those motorists who can buy their way out of traffic jams is flawed.

An agreement that hamstrings government's ability to do its job by improving the flow of traffic on a public road never should have been signed.

The 91 Express Lanes also is a cautionary tale of what goes wrong when adjacent counties adopt inconsistent solutions to common problems. Riverside used traditional road-funding methods during the 1990s to widen its section of the freeway; Orange County's public-private partnership produced the controversial toll lanes.

The result was a strategic roadblock that stymied a cooperative effort to alleviate traffic jams on a highway whose traffic will more than double during the next 20 years. OCTA's agreement to buy the controversial lanes provides a welcome end to a misguided chapter in the county's toll road experiment.

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