Assembly Vote Puts Brakes on Orange County Toll Road Plan

Times Staff Writer

In a sign that budding legislative support for the idea of toll roads in California may be weakening, the Assembly reversed its previous endorsement of the concept Thursday and voted to deny Orange County permission to build pay highways on two heavily congested traffic corridors.

The 41-30 vote, along generally partisan lines, followed by less than a month the Assembly's narrow approval of another bill that would allow any county in California to build toll roads.

Democrats said Thursday that the earlier vote was a mistake and argued that an end to the California tradition of freeways would be bad for commuters and business.

"I believe in the free flow of goods on the roads of California," said Assemblywoman Delaine Eastin (D-Union City). "I believe the genius of this economy was that we opened it up for business and we let business run in California on our roads. Those who believe in free markets and the competitiveness of this state will oppose toll roads in California."

Other Factors Involved

There were signs, however, that other factors--from the dispute over the state budget to a key Democrat's anger over losing a vote on the reorganization of the Southern California Rapid Transit District--may also have contributed to Thursday's defeat of the Orange County toll road bill.

Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda), chairman of the Transportation Committee and a supporter of the earlier bill, reversed his vote Thursday. He told reporters afterward that he is "rethinking toll roads" and refused to elaborate.

Other legislative sources said Katz was irate over losing a vote Wednesday on the composition of a proposed "super agency" to replace the RTD. Two Orange County Republicans--Sens. Marian Bergeson of Newport Beach and John Seymour of Anaheim--voted over Katz's objections to add a 12th member, probably Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys), to what had been a delicately balanced commission.

Seymour said an aide to Katz called one of his staff members and told her that Katz would retaliate against Seymour's bills in the Assembly. The Orange County toll road bill rejected Thursday was similar to a measure authored by Seymour and approved by the Senate June 11.

Katz, who last month called toll roads "innovative" and said they "would give motorists a chance," denied that his reversal was an act of revenge, saying only, "I look at each bill on the merits."

Later, Katz telephoned a reporter to say that he opposed the bill because, given the Assembly's earlier approval of a statewide bill, "to have a separate bill for Orange County is somewhat duplicative and unnecessary."

There were also indications that the Democrats' solid opposition to the bill, authored by Assemblyman Nolan Frizzelle (R-Huntington Beach), might be related to the bitterly partisan stalemate over the state budget and the state spending limit. Gov. George Deukmejian has said the spending limit requires a $700-million rebate to the taxpayers. Democrats disagree.

'U-Turn to Yesterday'

Assemblyman Rusty Areias (D-Los Banos), who voted for Frizzelle's bill in the Transportation Committee, said he changed his mind because he has been "haunted" by that vote. He said toll roads would be "a U-turn to yesterday."

"Transportation facilities ought to be paid for through the gas tax," Areias said. "We've got a wonderful system in place. The problem is we don't have a governor with the political courage to raise the gas tax, to raise the (spending) limit, to do whatever it takes to address the transportation needs of this state in the year 2000 and beyond."

Frizzelle's other bill, which would allow any California county to build and operate toll roads, could still become law if approved by the Senate in its current form and signed by Deukmejian, who has indicated that he would support toll roads as long as they are parallel to existing highways. Frizzelle emphasized that point Thursday.

"Those who say it's not fair to charge people for riding on the toll roads have to understand that those who agree to be charged are (the only ones) who will be charged," Frizzelle said. "It's voluntary to the rider on the highway."

The Senate, however, which only narrowly approved Seymour's bill to allow turnpikes as a pilot project in Orange County, seems unlikely to approve Frizzelle's statewide bill without changes. That would give the Assembly another shot at the issue before it goes to the governor.

The Assembly granted Frizzelle permission to have his bill reconsidered later if he wishes.

Times staff writer Mark Gladstone contributed to this story.

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