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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

Breakdown on the Tollways

July 14, 2002

Orange County's experience with toll roads offers a lesson learned the hard way about the cost of infrastructure needed to support growth. When things went awry in the late 1990s, Orange County was the focal point. It has five of seven roads created by the Legislature, and it provided a laboratory for two models.

Both systems, one a single patch of road relying on entirely private investment and the other a network of toll roads overseen by a quasi-public agency, ran into big economic and political trouble. Financial woes and an ill-considered restriction on improvements on the public right of way led to the unraveling of the 91 Express Lanes experiment on the Riverside Freeway. Environmental controversy and overly ambitious ridership projections came home to roost on the San Joaquin Hills tollway, one of three corridors in the local toll authority's empire.

The two kinds of toll road experiment in Orange County essentially arose from two big California ideas. The first was the vision of this as a state where a huge system of public roads, water projects and universities sustained a particular kind of lifestyle, and then what happens when it is no longer possible to rely on public money to finance expanding those things. The other notion, fueled by Orange County's distinctive political ideology, was that by the 1980s, big government had run out of ideas and resources, and that private investment and initiative were necessary to provide public benefits.

When Orange County legislators lobbied in the 1980s for Sacramento's blessing on the toll roads idea, the mission was to open lands to development. The public coffers couldn't pay for new public roads, so the private idea gained currency as an alternative. Now the lesson is clear. If you want growth in the future, you need to figure out how to pay for it in a way that pencils out. Federal and state gas taxes weren't enough to do the job, and now we see that projections on ridership have to be backed with financial performance. It should have been obvious.

There have been other problems. After construction did not begin on time, a franchise agreement was terminated on an Orange Freeway extension that was to be a tollway. Noncompetition clauses interfering with lane additions on the Riverside Freeway caused such political problems that they soured legislative support for the toll road concept.

Yet with all this, the notion of private financing of road construction for needed highways that in time would revert to public ownership was a plausible idea. The problem, as we have seen in Orange County, has been in making realistic promises and in executing a plan well enough to sustain political support. Roads always are needed for growth, and now Orange County's experiment has demonstrated how much more care really is needed in executing an arterial plan paid for at the toll basket.

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