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ORANGE COUNTY COMMENTARY

Toll-Road System Deserves Support

September 01, 2002|DICK ACKERMAN | Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine) is a state senator.

Toll roads have been in the news a lot lately, and some people wonder if they were a mistake. To the contrary, Orange County's public toll road system has breathed life into the local economy and is a symbol of innovation.

When our civic leaders realized in the early 1980s that Interstate 5 would not be able to accommodate impending population growth, additional freeways were mapped out. Unfortunately, the state said that it had no money to build them. Absent tax dollars, the only way the roads could be built was to finance them through bonds and make them toll roads.

This is a public toll-road system, however, and once the bonds are paid off, they will serve as "freeways," as they were originally planned. But with California currently running $24 billion in the red, it's a good thing Orange County didn't wait for the state to come up with the funding. Without the toll roads, Interstate 5 would be as congested as the Riverside Freeway, businesses in the area would be suffering, and the quality of life in Orange County would be substantially affected.

The toll roads have played a key role in fueling Orange County's economic engine. Western Digital, Oakley, Black & Decker and other companies probably would not be headquartered in southern Orange County if it weren't for the convenient access that toll roads provide. The economic vitality of these and other businesses in Orange County depend on an efficient ground transportation system.

With freeway congestion worsening daily, it is essential that clients and customers have an alternative such as the toll roads, which give them convenient access to central and southern Orange County businesses.

It is important to note that the Transportation Corridor Agencies, which built and operate the toll roads, are two joint powers authorities. These are public agencies governed by elected officials from the cities and unincorporated county areas adjacent to the toll roads. Elected representatives, not private investors, sit on the two boards of directors and make policy decisions to help enhance mobility in Orange County.

That is why I am conceptually in favor of the Orange County Transportation Authority's efforts to take over the 91 Express Lanes. Assembly Bill 1010, which recently passed a Senate committee vote, would give OCTA the authority to collect tolls until the cost of the construction of the lanes has been paid off.

If OCTA gets the authority to collect tolls, safeguards like those that exist in the TCA toll road system must be put in place to ensure that Orange County taxpayers are not at risk.

The TCA is considering a consolidation of its boards to reduce bureaucracy and increase efficiency. The proposed consolidation will also allow the new board to refinance its debt, which would probably ease the financial pressure on the San Joaquin Hills tollway and renew Wall Street's faith in the leadership of the agency.

We need to run our governmental agencies more like businesses to encourage the development of entrepreneurial solutions to our regional problems, especially our increasing need to improve our crumbling infrastructure.

Fifty-one miles of the planned 67-mile toll road system have been built; now we just have to finish the job. The Foothill tollway now ends at Oso Parkway. If the final connection is built, the toll road system would be complete, and residents and businesses in San Clemente would have a much-needed alternative to Interstate 5.

But the toll roads have proved to be more than just a convenient alternative. They are a necessity for many of the 220,000 daily users who rely on them to get to work.

Alternative roads are needed, not only for the continued success of local businesses, but also for anyone who prefers spending more time with their loved ones to sitting in traffic. The continued financial health of the toll roads must be taken seriously because independent public agencies like the TCA are an integral part of our county's economic health.

The TCA is taking the necessary steps to preserve the financial integrity of the toll roads while providing convenient alternatives to congested freeways.

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