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91 Toll-Lane Deal Passes, Goes to Davis

Transit: Bill would let Orange County buy express route from firm and void provision that bars freeway widening. Its fate is uncertain.


The question of whether the Orange County Transportation Authority can buy the privately owned 91 Express Lanes was put before Gov. Gray Davis on Saturday after the state Assembly overwhelmingly passed legislation allowing the deal.

The bill, which appeared in jeopardy last week when two key legislators pulled their support in a squabble over amendments, passed 60 to 1 at 1 a.m.

It would allow the OCTA to collect tolls on the express lanes and nullify a contractual ban on improvements to the Riverside Freeway, a key step in long-range plans to ease congestion on one of Southern California's most gridlocked roads.

"We accomplished what a lot of people didn't think we could accomplish," said Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who chairs the OCTA board. "The governor, with one stroke of his pen, can now take credit for significant congestion relief for 250,000 daily motorists."

But supporters of the legislation aren't taking Davis' approval for granted. "Once you begin thinking anything up here is a slam dunk, you're in trouble," said the bill's author, Assemblyman Lou Correa (D-Anaheim).

Davis has been noncommittal. And like many Democrats in Sacramento, he is philosophically opposed to toll roads. "As long as I'm governor, freeways are staying free," he said in March.

A spokeswoman for Davis echoed that line Saturday. "He's going to have to read that bill carefully," said press aide Hilary McLean.

If Davis signs the bill, the OCTA could take possession of the express lanes, which stretch for 10 miles between Anaheim and the Riverside County line, as early as Jan. 2, Spitzer said.

"I want to focus on the positives," the supervisor said. "We have bipartisan support, bi-county support and statewide support for this action. The Democrats supported it. If the governor didn't want this on his desk, he could have killed it in committee."

Three Assembly members from Orange County--Correa, Bill Campbell and Tom Harman--voted for AB 1010. But three did not vote: John Campbell, Ken Maddox and Patricia Bates.

"Some people still had questions about the appraisal" for the sale, Correa said.

"Some people still had questions about the commitment for future construction and improvements on the road. There were a lot of legislators who had differences of opinion over tweaks to the legislation. But even they recognized the common goal, which is to ease traffic," he said.

The OCTA has offered $207.5 million for the lanes, which were built in the mid-1990s for about $135 million and are owned by California Private Transportation Co. The sale would allow the OCTA to negate a non-compete agreement the company has with the California Department of Transportation that prevents widening of the freeway.

Each workday, about 250,000 cars squeeze through the artery that connects Orange County and the Inland Empire--a number expected to hit 400,000 by 2010.

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