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91 Toll Lanes Sale to Orange County Wins Approval

Fees will continue until the road's debt is retired. Deal clears the way for $1.6 billion in improvements to the Riverside Freeway.

November 26, 2002|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

After more than a year of study and deal-making, the Orange County Transportation Authority on Monday approved a final agreement to buy the 91 Express Lanes, a privately owned toll road that has become the state's most controversial experiment in building highways.

OCTA directors voted unanimously to buy the roadway from California Private Transportation Co., which has operated the four lanes running 10 miles down the middle of the congested Riverside Freeway since December 1995.

The toll lanes -- among the most expensive per-mile rides in the nation -- have frustrated commuters and politicians alike, largely because the owners have the right to block major improvements to the Riverside Freeway.

OCTA agreed in April to acquire the operation for $207.5 million on Jan. 3, as long as the company's revenue and finances were sound. Under the agreement, the authority will assume the operation's debts of $135 million and pay the owners $72.5 million in cash.

Caltrans directors still must agree to the sale, but no opposition is anticipated.

The tollway runs from northern Anaheim to the Riverside County line. It was one of four privately owned turnpikes approved by the state Legislature as a way to hasten construction of new highways. So far, it is the only one to be built.

To help the Express Lanes succeed, Caltrans gave California Private Transportation the extraordinary power to veto improvements to portions of the Riverside Freeway through 2030.

Critics say the restrictions have aggravated congestion on the Riverside Freeway, which is the only major link between the fast-growing Inland Empire and Orange County jobs. The sale of the tollway to OCTA will end the noncompete agreement, clearing the way for $1.6 billion in improvements to the Riverside Freeway. About a third of that will be funded by Riverside County, which passed Measure A, a sales tax initiative that will pay for transportation projects.

Toll revenue is important to OCTA, which intends to maintain the toll road operation until the lanes' $135-million debt is retired. Officials say they want to refinance the road next year with tax-exempt bonds, a move that could lower its debt service. They say that until they take over the operation, they can't estimate how long it will take to retire the debt and end the tolls.

OCTA's evaluation of the Express Lanes also shows that its electronic toll collection system needs to be replaced at a cost of $3 million, and the lanes need $2 million in repairs.

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