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Orange County

Studies of Express Lanes Ordered

Commuting: O.C. transit agency hires consultants to determine a fair price for the private tollway.

January 29, 2002|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Orange County Transportation Authority took the first steps Monday toward buying the Riverside Freeway's Express Lanes, approving several studies of the purchase and the hiring of Ernst & Young for an independent appraisal.

Up to now, the only purchase price--$274million--was supplied by the toll lanes' operator, the California Private Transportation Co., when a nonprofit group tried to buy the lanes several years ago.

OCTA Chairman Todd Spitzer wants an unbiased figure, substantiated by fresh surveys of future trends, commuter profiles and a study of economic indicators in Riverside and Orange counties.

"We are not aware of any similar situation in which a governmental entity has sought to negotiate the purchase of a private toll road," Spitzer said. He noted that hiring the accountants will help the agency during negotiations.

"We don't want to overpay, and we will not be taken advantage of in negotiations," he added. "That's why it's important to get an independent, third-party evaluation of an acquisition price."

In all, about $200,000 for three studies on the privately owned toll lanes was approved at the authority's meeting Monday.

Noncompete Clause Sparked Controversy

Buying the toll lanes has been a hot discussion item since it was revealed that the original 1993 franchise agreement for the private turnpike included a noncompete clause prohibiting Caltrans from improving or adding lanes to the freeway.

After agreeing this month to pay $4million in public funds to the toll lane operator for the right to widen the traffic-clogged Riverside Freeway, authority directors concluded they must buy the tollway to end such payments.

The private toll agency paid about $130million to build the Express Lanes, Spitzer said.

"The goal here is very positive, and it's to return the private toll road to public ownership," Spitzer said.

The accounting firm of Ernst & Young was hired for $125,000 to determine a price for the lanes.

"This is unique because as far as we know, it's hard to come up with a measuring stick for a toll road," said George Urch, an OCTA spokesman.

An earlier effort to buy the tollway by NewTrac, a nonprofit agency, failed in 1999. According to OCTA staff, "lack of an independent cost review ... raised questions about the validity of the proposed purchase price."

The accounting firm also will review economic and demographic trends for the region.

Expense Doomed Earlier Attempt to Buy Lanes

Two years ago, the transit authority tried to have the state buy all four toll roads, but the $3.5-billion cost--one-fourth of the state's surplus at the time--proved too expensive. The effort involved the Foothill, Eastern and San Joaquin Hills toll roads and the 91 Express Lanes.

Assemblyman Rod Pacheco (R-Riverside) introduced a bill to require Gov. Gray Davis for an independent appraisal and to establish a local authority to acquire the private toll lanes. The governor vetoed the bill.

To help gather information, the authority's directors approved a $100,000 commuter survey to determine who uses the freeway and why. The cost will be shared equally by the Riverside County Transportation Commission.

The Southern California Assn. of Governments will hire a consultant to videotape license plates near the Riverside County line from 4 to 10 a.m. Questionnaires will be sent to households once addresses are obtained from the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The transportation authority also approved paying $25,000 to a governmental consultant to study the economic relationships between Riverside and Orange counties. The Riverside County Transportation Commission will pay an equal sum toward the study.

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