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The Region

91 Toll Lane Sale May Cut Commute Fees

Transportation: Officials to act as fast as possible on charges and will begin improvements to Riverside Freeway. Davis must yet approve deal.

September 09, 2002|DAN WEIKEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Once it buys the 91 Express Lanes, the Orange County Transportation Authority wants to phase out the controversial toll road as quickly as possible and launch a massive package of long-awaited improvements to relieve severe rush-hour congestion on the Riverside Freeway.

Although it could be years before the lanes are opened to nonpaying customers, OCTA might lower tolls in the meantime and will immediately lift troublesome restrictions that have blocked widening one of the most bottlenecked highways in Southern California.

"We want to reduce tolls, shorten the term of those tolls, and improve mobility," said Arthur T. Leahy, OCTA's chief executive officer. "This will be a toll road elimination program."

Before the authority can act, Gov. Gray Davis must approve legislation that grants OCTA the power to get into the turnpike business. Assembly Bill 1010, which passed overwhelmingly in both houses last month, is expected to reach the governor's desk in mid-September.

Unless the measure is vetoed, OCTA and the private company that owns the 91 Express Lanes can close a deal they agreed to in April, addressing one of the region's most nagging transportation controversies.

The 91 Express Lanes run for 10 miles down the median of the Riverside Freeway from northern Anaheim to the Riverside County line. They opened in December 1995 with two lanes in each direction. During rush hours, they cost $4.75 each way, one of the steepest tolls in the nation.

To help the tollway succeed, Caltrans gave its owner, the California Private Transportation Co., the extraordinary power to veto improvements to portions of the Riverside Freeway through 2030. The non-compete agreement covers 30 miles of the freeway, including the toll lanes and 10 miles on each side.

Critics say the restrictions have aggravated congestion on the Riverside Freeway, the only one between the fast-growing Inland Empire and Orange County's job market. On workdays, motorists make at least 250,000 trips on the Riverside Freeway, most during the morning and evening crush. The number of daily trips is projected to swell to 400,000 by 2020.

Construction of the private toll lanes also increased tensions between politicians and government officials on either side of the Orange County line who disagreed on ways to fix the Riverside Freeway's congestion.

Orange County officials originally supported the Express Lanes as a way to relieve congestion. Riverside officials opposed the tollway and eventually sued Caltrans to nullify the non-compete agreement.

"While many people use the private toll road operation, they don't realize the restrictions it places on future improvements," said John F. Tavaglione, a Riverside County supervisor who chairs the transportation commission. "Hopefully in time, we will be able to relieve the bottlenecks and help both counties."

Under terms of AB 1010, Riverside County must drop its lawsuit against Caltrans. In the long term, the county has earmarked almost $500 million for lane additions and interchange improvements to the Riverside Freeway and nearby sections of Interstate 15.

Those plans are part of a broad proposal to make $1.6 billion in improvements to the Riverside Freeway corridor in Orange and Riverside counties over three decades. They range from simple lane restriping and choke-point projects to major widenings and interchanges from the 15 to the Orange-Los Angeles County line.

"We have made unprecedented progress in having the opportunity to improve mobility in Riverside and Orange counties," said Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who chairs the OCTA board. "This will pave the way for major work on the 91."

To help clear the way for those improvements, OCTA agreed to buy the Express Lanes for $207.5 million. The authority will assume the turnpike's debt of $135 million and pay the company $72.5 million in cash. If all goes well, officials say escrow will close Jan. 2.

If AB 1010 clears the governor's office, OCTA plans a traffic and revenue study for the tollway and will assemble two advisory committees--one from OCTA and a second of officials from Caltrans and the counties of Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino.

Leahy said OCTA already is negotiating with Cofiroute, a French toll road company, to handle day-to-day operations once the authority acquires the lanes. Cofiroute is now a partner in California Private Transportation. OCTA also plans to hire a tollway manager until it is phased out.

More critically, Leahy said, he wants California Private Transportation to consider dropping some provisions of the non-compete agreement immediately so Caltrans can begin planning improvements to the Riverside Freeway well before the deal closes in January.

Leahy said much of the groundwork for a change in ownership, setting tolls and road improvements might be completed as early as November.

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