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Secrecy Won’t Build Consensus : State agency wants to keep toll road details under wraps

One legacy of the Deukmejian Administration that will come to fruition soon is the “public-private partnership” of roads.

Caltrans’ plan to build four more private toll roads was part of the deal to bring the governor on board to support the gas tax for transportation improvements that passed last June.

Last week, Caltrans and a private firm concluded an agreement expected to lead to the construction of the first of these projects, a 10-mile tollway for the median strip of the Riverside Freeway between the Orange County line and the Costa Mesa Freeway.

These plans are intriguing. The road could help ease congestion on a freeway that now handles more than 200,000 vehicles a day. The state wouldn’t have to pay to get more lanes built, and a bonus would be their availability, for free, to people who car pool.

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But given the importance of this project, there is much the public does not yet know.

Indeed, crucial agencies like the Orange County Transportation Commission still are in the dark. Caltrans says that it is keeping the fine points under wraps in order not to undercut negotiations for the other three tollway projects--another in Orange County and one each for San Diego and Alameda counties.

But the sooner the public knows what’s what, the better it can evaluate a project that’s in a hurry. Construction is planned this year; operation, by 1994.

For example, we know that plans also are being considered to extend the toll road even further than announced into both Orange and Riverside counties.

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What will happen to existing plans for car-pool lanes on either side of the tollway if that happens? Money earmarked from locally passed transportation sales taxes could be freed, but those who would decide what to do with it are outside the loop.

Moreover, will such a “public-private” agreement rule out the future construction of competing free roads? What profit would be allowed the builder, and who will get any surplus toll money and how would it be spent?

The answers surely are at least as important as Caltrans’ perceived need to give the negotiations a quiet treatment.

There will, of course, have to be environmental reviews and hearings. But until more is known, this venture is only partly a “public-private partnership"--one worked out behind the scenes.


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