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Buying Tollway a Bad Idea?

OCTA could regret purchase if the road can't pay debt, warns state Sen. Dunn. Official responds: Deal is a first step to improvements.

January 29, 2003|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

By buying a controversial toll road on the busy Riverside Freeway, the Orange County Transportation Authority has inherited a "white elephant" that may trigger a disaster for taxpayers and motorists, state Sen. Joe Dunn has said in a scathing letter to local transit officials.

Dunn (D-Garden Grove) said he strongly questions whether the purchase of the 91 Express Lanes on Jan. 3 will result in shorter rush-hour commutes on one of the most congested highways in Southern California.

Dunn, who sits on the Senate Transportation Committee, also warned that taxpayers might have to pay the bill if tolls cannot cover interest payments on the $135-million debt the authority assumed when it bought the privately owned lanes from California Private Transportation Co.

"I am confident that in the not-too-distant future OCTA will have to answer either to Riverside commuters as to why their commute hasn't improved, or to Orange County taxpayers as to why their tax dollars are being used to support the purchase," he wrote.

Dunn wrote the letter to Arthur T. Leahy, OCTA's chief executive officer, days after a Jan. 10 dedication ceremony during which Orange and Riverside county officials heralded the sale as a critical step in reducing congestion on the Riverside Freeway.

The four-lane turnpike, which sold for $207 million, runs for 10 miles down the median of the freeway from northern Anaheim to the Riverside County line.

It cost about $125 million to build and opened in December 1995.

Supporters of the sale note that it has ended a controversial clause between Caltrans and the previous owner that blocked much-needed improvements to the Riverside Freeway.

"To me, this is a lot of sour grapes," said Cypress City Councilman Tim Keenan, chairman of the OCTA board of directors. "Dunn is not offering any solutions. He is only being critical."

OCTA is working with Caltrans and Riverside County transportation officials to begin making $1.6 billion in improvements to the Riverside Freeway -- work that would have been prohibited had the lanes not been purchased.

The authority, which says the turnpike is ahead of revenue projections, wants to refinance to reduce its debt.

Corona Councilman Jeff Miller, a supporter of the sale and member of the 91 Express Lanes advisory committee, said Dunn's criticisms are off base.

"The buyout is a springboard for both counties to discuss tolls, widenings, and a new corridor. Without it, all we have is gridlock and no hope for the future."

Dunn acknowledged that the state is in a severe budget crisis but said he still believes the state -- not the county's transportation authority -- should own the toll lanes.

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