OCTA Now Owns Freeway's Toll Lanes

Times Staff Writer

Ushering in a new era for the Riverside Freeway, Orange County's transportation agency took ownership Friday of the controversial 91 Express Lanes -- a privately run tollway that has frustrated improvements to one of the busiest highways in Southern California.

The government agency assumed possession of the 10-mile toll road at 12:01 a.m., concluding a $207-million deal with the California Private Transportation Co. that took months of negotiations, legal work and state legislation.

Orange County Transportation Authority officials said the acquisition will clear the way for $1.6 billion in proposed improvements for the heavily congested freeway, which is the only major link between Orange County and the fast-growing Inland Empire.

"The real work begins," said Cypress City Councilman Tim Keenan, chairman of the OCTA board of directors. "We are now making some serious decisions about the next steps."

The tollway, which has two lanes in each direction, runs along the median of the Riverside Freeway from northern Anaheim to the Riverside County border. It cost about $125 million to build and opened in late 1995. Closing the sale ends a troublesome non-competition clause between the operators and Caltrans that restricted widenings, new interchanges and other improvements that would increase the capacity of the Riverside Freeway.

The protective agreement, which would have expired in 2025, affected 30 miles of the freeway from the Los Angeles-Orange County border to Interstate 15 in Riverside County. Critics of the non-compete clause said it effectively ceded control of a public highway to a for-profit company.

"This was a very difficult transaction to pull off," said Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, a former Orange County Supervisor and chairman of the OCTA board of directors, who pushed for the purchase.

"There were a significant number of actors with a lot at stake.... This paves the way for improvements that would have been prohibited from the 605 Freeway to the I-15 for 30 years."

Spitzer cautioned, however, that the state budget deficit, which is threatening almost $2.5 billion in transportation funds and 141 current projects, could hamper efforts to secure matching state money for improvements to the Riverside Freeway. Current projects across the state are in jeopardy, he said, and others not in the queue yet will fall further down the list of priorities.

To get the deal finalized, OCTA officials overcame last-minute concerns from Riverside County that the purchase agreement still contained a broadly worded non-competition clause. Keenan said Riverside officials were assured that the language of the provision was benign and would not interfere with planned improvements.

Also Friday, attorneys for Riverside County went to court and dismissed two county lawsuits against Caltrans and the toll road company that challenged the constitutionality of the non-competition clause. A separate case brought by the city of Corona against Caltrans is still pending.

"We are convinced this is the right thing to do," said Riverside County Supervisor John Tavaglione, who heads the Riverside County Transportation Commission.

Toll lane policy now will be decided by the OCTA directors based on recommendations from a joint advisory committee of five OCTA board members, five members of the Riverside County Transportation Commission, two Caltrans directors and a representative from San Bernardino County.

The committee will advise policy makers on tolls and improvements to the Riverside Freeway as well as on a possible new transportation corridor between Orange and Riverside counties.

The tolls themselves will be among the first items discussed later this month. OCTA officials have talked about the possibility of lowering fares in the future, but no decisions have been made.

Keenan said a new traffic study being prepared by Vollmer & Associates indicates that the lanes already are at capacity during peak hours. In one scenario, the report stated that tolls might have to be raised at rush hour to keep traffic flowing in the future. Non-peak hours would be the most likely for lower tolls, the study concluded.

Keenan said that if road improvements can be made, traffic demand in the toll lanes might be reduced, eliminating any need to raise fees.

"We cannot just willy-nilly raise tolls without a clear, understandable, fully scrutinized rationale," Spitzer said.

"If we do, we run the risk of losing all the goodwill the purchase has built up between the counties."

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