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Tollway Trial at a Dead End in California

Transit: Pay-as-you-go highways have become a political nightmare. But backers say that with new approach, the roads can live up to early hype.

July 07, 2002|DAN WEIKEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Political and financial problems have led many state leaders to conclude that California's nearly two-decade experiment with toll roads has failed, despite fervent hopes and vast investments.

When the state first embraced toll roads, think tanks, politicians and government officials couldn't find enough superlatives to describe them. Whether government-run or privately owned, toll roads were transportation's future--an effective way to build highways when the state had little money for new construction. So enthusiastic was the Legislature that it helped create seven of them--five in Orange County.

Today, the governor says "Freeways should remain free." California legislators speak openly of scrapping the toll-road experiment. Even the most ardent supporters are tempering their positions.

"I've been burned, and the public has been burned by the whole thing," said state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), who supported legislation that approved the 91 Express Lanes on the Riverside Freeway and three other privately owned tollways. "We must never allow the state's obligation to build a first-rate public highway system to be compromised again."

The Express Lanes created such a political nightmare that the Orange County Transportation Authority wants to buy the project and put it into the public's hands. Three other toll roads in the county are struggling with lower-than-expected revenue. A fifth proposed tollway in Orange County and another in the Bay Area have been stalled by political opposition and financial problems.

The only tollway project untainted by controversy is a proposed segment of California 125 near the Mexican border in San Diego County. It may provide the last chance to prove that a privately owned toll road can work in California. Construction on the $425-million highway is scheduled to begin by year's end.

Toll road advocates concede that the experiment has not gone well. But they say tollways remain a viable alternative in a state struggling to meet its growing transportation demands. Federal and state gas taxes, supporters say, will not provide enough money to pay for billions of dollars in needed highways. And the state, they note, had to close a $23-billion budget gap this year.

"There probably isn't much support for this idea anymore. That is a shame," said Irvine City Councilman Mike Ward, who sits on the OCTA board of directors. "When a mistake is made, the pendulum always swings too far the other way."

McClintock and other disaffected politicians should not be so hard on the measures they helped to make law, Ward said, because they supplied necessary freeways much faster and cheaper than the state could.

Unlike the eastern United States, where turnpikes have been widely accepted, California has little experience with toll roads and turned to them only when no alternative could be found.

The Legislature began supporting them in 1986 when it created the Transportation Corridor Agencies, a government entity based in Irvine. Financed by $4 billion in bond sales, the TCA built a 51-mile network of highways, including the Foothill, the Eastern and the San Joaquin Hills toll roads slicing through the canyons and hills in eastern and southern Orange County.

Three years later, the Legislature approved four more that would be owned and financed by private companies--The Mid-State Tollway in Alameda and Contra Costa counties; the segment of California 125 in San Diego County; a proposed extension of the Orange Freeway in Orange County and the 91 Express Lanes.

Facing an acute shortage of transportation funds at the time, legislators said tollways would take the pressure off snarled freeways and accommodate future residential and commercial development, particularly in fast-growing Orange County.

Disenchantment with the pay-as-you-go highways took root in 1995 when public opposition to the Mid-State Tollway began to grow. The 40-mile, $600-million route that was to run through the East Bay was abandoned in 2001.

In Orange County, the state recently terminated the franchise agreement for the proposed extension of the Orange Freeway, an 11-mile road that was to follow the Santa Ana River, connecting the Santa Ana and San Diego freeways. Caltrans officials say American Transportation Development did not begin construction on time, leaving them no choice but to cancel the contract. The Arizona-based company is contesting the matter in court.

Default on Bonds Feared

Meanwhile, traffic and revenue on the 16-mile San Joaquin Hills toll road has lagged so badly behind projections that the Transportation Corridor Agencies may default on $1 billion in bonds by 2012.

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