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Orange County | DANA PARSONS

O.C. and 91 Express Lanes: a Loveless Marriage

January 18, 2002|DANA PARSONS

Marriages of convenience seldom end well. The parties pretend they're equals, but in reality, one party ends up holding more power than the other. Wise owls on the outside see that, and even as they stand in the aisles shouting, "Don't do it! Don't do it!" the parties go ahead and get married anyway.

Then, a few years down the pike . . . blooey.

Things are going blooey between Orange County and the private company that operates the 91 Express Lanes on the Riverside Freeway, which links Orange and Riverside counties.

The two were conjoined several years ago after the state agreed to let private companies build toll lanes. In those early, heady days, Orange County eagerly joined in the union by embracing private builders, even as some outsiders thought the public-private match was a bad one.

Anyone reading the prenuptial agreement, however, could see that there was no love there--just a mutual need. Unfortunately, the state needed private enterprise a little bit more than the other way around, so guess who's paying for that imbalance now?

Correct: You.

The Orange County Transportation Agency is forking over $4 million to the California Private Transportation Co. in exchange for the company sitting there and doing nothing. You might want to make a note to yourself to consider working for a company like that.

The money is part of an overall $12 million for a project to add a lane in Orange County to the bottled-up commuter freeway.

The state Department of Transportation will pay about $8 million for the widening project.

The other $4 million? That will be given to the company to offset a potential loss of its business due to the widened freeway.

If that's confusing, it's probably because you think a public agency shouldn't have to pay a private company when the state wants to make improvements on a state highway.

That's what some people (but not enough) worried about in 1993 when Caltrans agreed not to make improvements on the freeway--except for safety reasons--in the area where the proposed Express Lanes would go. The reason was that such improvements might make people less likely to use the privately owned Express Lanes and, therefore, be unfair to a company building the lanes.

If it makes it easier to grasp, just think of the $4 million OCTA will be paying as the price of a shotgun wedding.

The private company is nobody's fool. Caltrans tried to slip in a freeway improvement a few years ago, but the company reacted with a lawsuit. Caltrans, realizing who wore the pants in this union, backed off.

By then, all the naysayers of this marriage between public and private interests were saying, "I told you so."

The most galling element was that the state couldn't improve its own roadway--not the part owned by the private company--if those improvements hurt the private company's business.

That, in essence, reduced the state to just another private company that had to dance to the tune of a dominant competitor.

Many people now believe the marriage is doomed. The state isn't saying much, but Orange County has made it clear it wants out. The private company has indicated it is amenable to a split if the terms are right--if only because it's probably tired of the sniping.

The company entertained the thought of selling the lanes to a private nonprofit group, but that $225-million transaction collapsed in 1999 when the state had misgivings.

Now, OCTA says it's interested in buying the lanes.

If so, it would turn the clock back to 1989 when the Legislature first said yes to the proposal.

Back then, the arrangement may have made sense. Both thought they were getting something from the other: The state didn't want to pay for major freeway projects, and private interests were eager to get into the highway-building business.

In 1996, the 91 Express Lanes opened. The state--along with a ready and willing Orange County--linked its sacred honor with private industry out there on the Riverside Freeway.

Courtship, marriage, breakdown.

Hey, it was a great five years, wasn't it?


Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821; by writing to him at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626; or by e-mail at

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