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O.C. Gets OK to Buy, Improve 91 Toll Lanes

Transportation: The bill signed by Davis smooths way for transit agency to widen the notoriously congested Riverside Freeway. The tollway's price is $207 million.

September 19, 2002|DAN WEIKEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gov. Gray Davis on Wednesday cleared the way for the Orange County Transportation Authority to buy the privately owned 91 Express Lanes that run along the middle of the traffic-swamped Riverside Freeway.

The move is expected to end one of the state's most controversial experiments in speeding up highway construction by allowing private firms to build tollways.

Assembly Bill 1010, signed late Wednesday by Davis, will allow OCTA to complete the purchase of the lanes early next year, go into the toll road business for itself and eliminate a clause that had given the toll-lane owners the extraordinary power to block improvements to the congested Riverside Freeway.

"This will allow badly needed improvements to Route 91," Davis said. "The 91 can be an absolute nightmare for commuters who commonly take a full hour just to travel 10 miles."

OCTA needs the legislation to acquire the Express Lanes for $207.5 million and operate them as a tollway until the turnpike's $135 million in bonds can be paid off.

The deal was struck in April with California Private Transportation Co., a consortium that owns the lanes. Under the agreement, OCTA will assume the operation's debts and pay the company $72.5 million.

Without the passage of the Assembly bill, OCTA officials feared the owners would back out of the deal or ask for more money. Either might have doomed any major freeway improvement.

The bill "represents a local solution to a local problem," said the bills' sponsor, Assemblyman Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana). "It shows that private toll roads are an experiment that is failing."

The 91 Express Lanes run for 10 miles along the center of the Riverside Freeway, from northern Anaheim to the Riverside County line. They opened in December 1995 with two lanes in each direction and were one of four privately owned tollways the Legislature approved more than a decade ago. Two of the approved projects are presumed dead, and a third is only now being planned.

OCTA officials want to quickly phase out the toll operation and launch $1.6 billion in improvements to the freeway in Orange and Riverside counties. Tolls, now among the highest per-mile fees in the country, also may be lowered.

"Hopefully, they can provide some relief out there quickly," said Leif Grane of Corona, who spends hours a day on the Riverside Freeway getting to and from work in Long Beach.

Supporters of the bill cheered the fact that it eliminates a protection clause that Caltrans had originally offered the road's owner. To help the Express Lanes succeed, Caltrans gave California Private Transportation the power to veto improvements along a 30-mile stretch of the freeway until 2030.

Critics say the restrictions have aggravated congestion on the Riverside Freeway, which links the fast-growing Inland Empire to Orange County's ample job market.

On workdays, motorists make at least 250,000 trips on the freeway. The number of daily trips is projected to swell to at least 400,000 by 2020.

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