ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : A One-Way Street Deal

The San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor Agency will never be accused of lacking chutzpah.

The same toll road sponsors who launched a preemptive lawsuit against opponents of the planned San Joaquin Hills tollway now propose that Caltrans agree to a "no-competition" zone along the route. One can't help getting the feeling that they're operating most of the time under a siege mentality.

Under this latest defensive strike, traffic improvements currently planned would not be affected. But an agreement would prevent Caltrans from coming up with new plans for competing rail and highway projects over the next 35 years that might be perceived as undermining the success of the new toll road.

What a deal that would be for Orange County. In effect, to save its own neck, the toll road authority would virtually sentence parts of the region along the 17 1/2-mile corridor to future obsolescence in its public transportation system. Ride the toll road or else, is the message.

If Caltrans violated the no-competition agreement, it would be forced to help the agency out financially. This would draw taxpayers in by requiring the state to make up any difference between toll revenues and payments due on construction bonds.

It's hard to follow the logic of all this. Isn't the idea of having a toll road in the first place to provide commuters with a choice, not a detour sign that leads to a road where you have to pay to ride?

Toll roads make sense only as part of a larger mix. They must contribute to, not divert from, other sensible transportation alternatives. These other choices must include improved public arteries and rail systems that may or may not now be on the drawing board.

Don't be fooled by the explanation that the effect would be minimal. It's true that projects already in the works, including those contained in Measure M, the half-cent sales tax for traffic improvements, would be exempt. But under this agreement, just to imagine one scenario, Amtrak might be prevented from adding additional trains that would need Caltrans approval to go on line.

This no-competition proposal is a no-win situation for a clogged county. By the way, don't tollway proponents always reach for the congestion argument in making their case? It's hard to understand why they would want to stand in the way of other improvements to get traffic moving.

Caltrans would have to leave its senses at the toll booth to abide by this agreement. It's a one-way street.

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