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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : Roads Paved With Perks

From Orange County, reeling in bankruptcy and facing cuts in bus services, comes an outrageous tale of bloated government and lavish compensation for bureaucrats overseeing the state’s first public toll roads.

While others tighten their belts, officials in the Transportation Corridor Agencies have been rewarded with big salaries and such perks as a 2 1/2-month paid annual leave and a generous home loan. One executive’s company car is a Jeep worth $31,586. Chief Executive Officer William C. Woollett Jr., whose compensation package tops $175,000, has been given $36,664 in bonuses and merit raises since 1990.

To date, there are 7.5 miles of road open for business, while projects overall have fallen behind their original construction start dates, and costs have nearly doubled from 1990 estimates. Critics still question the need for the roads at all, especially the section running through environmentally sensitive coastal hills near Laguna Beach.

In the face of far more modest administrative costs for tollway agencies in other urban areas, Woollett is unapologetic. Clearly, the initiative for getting a handle on costs and compensation is unlikely to come from the executive level.

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Unfortunately, few of the public officials appointed to two boards overseeing the toll road projects seem to be minding the store. Last summer, in a rare expression of protest, one did vote against bonuses.

The boards would be more likely to do what was required if they were elected directly rather than appointed by their colleagues on various public entities. The agencies overseeing a public transportation empire shouldn’t operate in a vacuum. The public has a legitimate expectation for cost containment.

Toll roads in California are supposed to offer cost-effective alternatives to freeways. The benefit should lie in getting needed infrastructure on line when the money for more roads simply is not available. The roads should be run with streamlined efficiency. Toward that end, the inaugural project in Orange County is not setting a good precedent.


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