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O.C. to State: Buy Our Toll Roads

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

California state lawmakers should buy the 91 Express Lanes--as well as Orange County’s three other toll roads--and lift the tolls so everyone can drive free, Orange County Transportation Authority members agreed Monday.

“They have an obligation and a responsibility to purchase the entire tollway system in Orange County and make them free for everyone,” said Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who also serves on the OCTA board. “I don’t think the lanes are working at all.”

The surprise OCTA action--the board’s first policy statement on the 91 toll lane dilemma--appears to be little more than symbolism over substance.

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Despite the 10-1 vote, OCTA board members admitted that the odds are long that state legislators would spend more than $3.5 billion, more than a third of the state’s surplus, to buy the 91 Express Lanes as well as the Foothill, Eastern and San Joaquin toll roads.

“Orange County and the OCTA would agree there are a lot of other pressing transportation problems that need to be fixed and financed before we look to purchasing all four toll roads,” said state Assemblywoman Marilyn Brewer (R-Newport Beach).

Brewer is co-sponsoring a bill, now on hold in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, that would seek an appraisal of the 91 Express Lanes and form a new governmental entity to buy the lanes from the private company that operates them. A previous attempt by a nonprofit agency to buy the lanes was rebuffed by state officials.

Several OCTA officials also worried aloud that fewer commuters would take the competing Eastern toll road if the state were to buy the 91 Express Lanes and allow traffic to flow more smoothly.

“I don’t think that you should pick and choose. You can’t just buy out the 91 Express Lanes and think it’s not going to have an effect on the others,” said Susan Withrow, a Mission Viejo City Council member who serves as chairwoman of one of Orange County’s two toll road boards.

Supervisor Tom Wilson, who also sits on the county’s toll road boards, said the state would have little incentive later on to rescue one of the other toll roads if it bought the 91 Express Lanes.

“If we are going to do public, then we do all public,” Wilson said.

OCTA board members voted to remain neutral on the bill that Brewer is sponsoring with Assemblyman Rod Pacheco (R-Riverside). But if the bill advances, OCTA members said, they don’t want the state using Orange County’s transportation allocation to buy the 91 Express Lanes.

The OCTA board also voted to ask lawmakers to amend the Brewer-Pacheco bill, demanding a revenue and traffic study to determine possible effects on the Eastern toll road. And they voted to send a delegation of OCTA board members to meet with Riverside County Transportation Commission members over the matter.

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