Impasse Puts Toll Road Bill at Crossroads

Times Staff Writer

For years, Orange County officials and major landowners have clung to the notion that if all else fails, tolls might help pay the $1-billion price tag for three new expressways on their wish list.

But as a bill authorizing Orange County toll roads moves closer than ever to passage, the Orange County Transportation Commission and the Board of Supervisors have become its most vocal opponents.

Local officials and Assemblyman Nolan Frizzelle (R-Huntington Beach), the bill's author, have reached an impasse over which roadways the measure would permit and also over a unique plan to reduce property taxes that some local officials dismiss as "just crazy."

Now, with the bill facing its next-to-last hearing in the Senate Transportation Committee next week, opponents say they will try to kill it and get a more acceptable bill introduced next year.

The local officials say they are still very much in favor of toll roads, and there may be no better spot for California's first public turnpikes than growing areas of Orange County, where expressways are planned along the Foothill, Eastern and San Joaquin transportation corridors.

Never Embraced Bill

But they and major landowners, such as the Irvine Co., which have the most to gain from the new roads, have never embraced Frizzelle's bill. Frizzelle introduced it a few months after Orange County voters overwhelmingly rejected a sales tax increase that would have helped pay for the three expressways.

Initially, it would have allowed private corporations, regulated like utilities, to build two of the three planned roads and then levy tolls. The state would buy the roads once the tolls had paid the construction debt.

But local transportation planners, whom Frizzelle had not consulted, complained that the bill would give them too little control over planning and construction and would give the private corporations too much power.

Some landowners agreed, and the state Public Utilities Commission said it wanted no role in policing the construction and operation of toll roads.

So Frizzelle, who has made numerous concessions during the past 14 months trying to win local support for his bill, reluctantly agreed to drop that provision.

Tolls on Only 2 Roads

The biggest dispute between Frizzelle and local officials now is a provision that would limit tolls to two of the three planned expressways. Frizzelle said the provision is important "to protect the taxpayers," who, he says, will get stuck with the bill if the toll roads fail.

Frizzelle said it is unlikely that two parallel toll roads would succeed financially. His bill, he said, would force county officials to chose one north-south and one east-west route. And that provision, he said, isn't negotiable.

But county officials, who want their options left intact, say it is foolish to suspect that they would rush into any bad decisions. Besides, they add, bond companies that would front the money for road construction would not gamble if the roads were not planned well.

The provision will make little difference, however, unless Congress passes legislation sought by county officials that would allow tolls on roads that are in part federally funded. Without that change in federal law, proposed by Rep. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad), the planned San Joaquin roadway is not likely to become a toll road because it is already designated as a primary federal route.

The other snag between Frizzelle and local officials is over the county's developer-fee program. The county and 11 cities are collecting about $400,000 a month by charging builders a per-unit fee for the right to build in areas around the proposed freeways.

But Frizzelle says developers pass those charges on to home buyers, artificially inflating the value of real estate in the area. Homeowners should not have to pay taxes on the artificial value, he said. His bill would provide for tax rebates.

Agencies Would Lose Money

County officials say that computing the rebate would be difficult or impossible. Besides, "the issue is not germane to the concept of toll financing," said Transportation Commission Chairman James Roosevelt. He added that the provision virtually ensures the opposition of cities and school districts that would lose tax money.

But Frizzelle insists the provision is needed, and he says he won't change it.

"They (county officials) are not willing to take any restrictions whatsoever . . . to protect the taxpayers," Frizzelle said. "They want the whole enchilada or nothing at all. . . . They want to play cat-and-mouse. I can, too. But I don't know who's the cat and who's the mouse."

If local opposition kills Frizzelle's bill, he said, he will actively oppose any county-sponsored toll road bill that is introduced next year, and he will resubmit his own in the original form.

"I'll just go back to square one," said Frizzelle, who is vice chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee.

Despite the county's reservations, Frizzelle's bill passed the Assembly intact on a 48-30 vote last June. But the measure has since been stalled in the Senate Transportation Committee, where Senators Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) and John Seymour (R-Anaheim) have forced Frizzelle to address the local officials' concerns.

'Created New Interest'

Dennis Carpenter, a Sacramento lobbyist for both the Board of Supervisors and the Transportation Commission, said Frizzelle's bill, despite its problems, nevertheless "has created new interest " in toll roads as a potential solution to traffic problems in Orange County.

Distasteful as Californians generally find the idea of braking at toll plazas to hand over dimes, quarters and dollars, a 1981 survey by the Transportation Commission found that local voters see tolls as the least objectionable financing scheme for major new roads. Still, 61% opposed the idea.

The commission spent $50,000 last year for a more in-depth study of whether the state's first public toll roads might succeed in Orange County, but the results of that study are not ready.

There are nine state-owned toll bridges in California, but the state's only turnpike is the privately owned Seventeen Mile Drive on Monterey Peninsula.

State Sen. Paul B. Carpenter (D-Cypress), who is co-sponsoring Friz zelle's bill, met with strong opposition when he tried for three years, beginning in 1981, to get a toll-roads bill through the Legislature. A San Diego group launched a petition drive, and Carpenter received letters denouncing the idea.

'Out of Your Mind'

"You have got to be out of your mind to propose toll roads for California," wrote a man from San Francisco.

Much of the territory the three proposed new expressways would traverse is vacant, undeveloped land owned by large firms such as the Irvine Co., the Mission Viejo Co. and Aliso Viejo Co. The Foothill roadway is proposed between Orange and San Juan Capistrano, roughly parallel to the Santa Ana Freeway. The Eastern Corridor is a north-south route between Irvine and the Riverside Freeway. The San Joaquin route is through coastal foothills between Newport Beach and San Juan Capistrano.

But developers have kept their involvement in the debate low-profile, neither testifying at legislative hearings nor sending letters.

Nancy Coss-Fitzwater, the Irvine Co.'s manager of corporate affairs, said the company has been "very interested" and has been monitoring Frizzelle's bill.

"In general, we think toll roads are an option," Coss-Fitzwater said. But she said the company generally has agreed with transportation officials' reservations about this bill.

MP, Los Angeles Times

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