Riverside County officials this week signed off on a $2-billion road building plan to help relieve freeway traffic in the Inland Empire, approving a multifaceted project list that includes new toll lanes on Interstate 15 and an extension of the 91 Express Lanes on the Riverside Freeway.
With traffic in the region expected to grow 50% in the next 25 years, county Transportation Commission officials are racing to keep up, tapping sales tax revenue, developer fees and state transportation bond funds passed by voters last month.
"We're at the point where making small, incremental improvements will have only a limited benefit," said commission spokesman John Standiford. "We really needed to make a major effort to improve the whole system, and that's the message we got from our board."
Toll lanes figure prominently in the commission's 10-year blueprint to improve traffic. The proposed toll lanes would include extending the 91 Express Lanes in Orange County to Interstate 15 in Corona and the construction of two toll lanes in each direction on Interstate 15 from Ortega Highway near Lake Elsinore to the San Bernardino County line.
To pay for the lanes, planners would sell bonds and use revenue from Measure A, the half-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax passed by voters in 2002. Toll revenue would be used to repay the bonds as well as build more free lanes. Car pools of three or more people would be able to use the toll lanes free or at a discount.
Two of the commission's 30 board members objected to the toll lanes, including county Supervisor Bob Buster. He questioned whether the plan would violate the terms of Measure A, which called for adding a free lane on each side of Interstate 15 from the 60 Freeway to the San Diego County line.
But traffic has become so severe along these corridors that drivers will be willing to pay to use toll lanes, said Supervisor Marion Ashley, the board's chairman.
"Right now, if you're going somewhere and you want to get there fast and you have that dollar in your pocket, you'll use it," Ashley said.
The toll lanes will also take cars off the free lanes, he said.
Without the toll lane revenue, the county would have to wait years longer for enough public money to pay for widening freeways.
"But we really can't afford to wait 10 more years; we need the highways now," Ashley said.
The commission also decided Wednesday which projects it wants to tackle with new state infrastructure bond money. In the Nov. 7 election, voters approved Proposition 1B, which provides $20 billion for road projects.
To qualify for the bond money, the state requires that the projects be under construction by 2012.
The list includes extending carpool lanes on the 91 Freeway from Adams Street to the 60/91/215 interchange and widening Interstate 215 from Moreno Valley to Murrieta.
The commission is also seeking bond money to pay for auxiliary lanes and connector roads for the 91 Freeway.
Each proposed project will have to come back before the commission for final approval.
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The Riverside County Transportation Commission approved about $2 billion in improvements to the county's roadways, including adding toll lanes on the 91 Freeway from the Orange County line to Interstate 15, and on Interstate 15 between the San Bernardino County line and Highway 74 in Lake Elsinore. Projects that are priority:
Source: Riverside County Transportation Commission
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