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Lightening traffic -- and wallets

Times Staff Writers

CHULA VISTA, Calif. -- A 10-mile, privately owned toll road aimed at easing congestion around the U.S.-Mexico border is being celebrated this weekend, with officials in San Diego County touting it as evidence they are taking a different path when it comes to battling traffic.

The South Bay Expressway, which opens to the public Monday, roughly parallels Interstate 5 about 15 miles east, running from the suburb of Bonita to the Otay Mesa border crossing.

It’s only the second private toll road to be built in California and is part of a larger effort in San Diego County to reduce congestion by asking commuters to pay.

The county already charges solo drivers to use carpool lanes on a portion of Interstate 15 and is now considering a plan to do the same on some carpool lanes on freeway onramps.

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San Diego County, along with Orange County, is at the forefront in California of private roads and “congestion pricing,” in which motorists are charged to use certain roads based on the amount of traffic. Both President Bush and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have hailed both concepts as ways of building new roads and reducing traffic.

Los Angeles earlier this year lost out on millions of dollars in federal transportation funding because it didn’t have any congestion-pricing projects in the works. In response, the MTA agreed to develop a toll road plan that could be implemented in three years.

Officials in San Diego County think they can be a model for L.A. But some are skeptical, noting vast differences between the two cities and their freeway systems.

The record of publicly owned toll roads in California is decidedly mixed. In Orange County, a toll road that connects Yorba Linda with Irvine, Route 241, is doing well. But another one between San Juan Capistrano and Newport Beach, Route 73, has struggled.

Officials in San Diego County believe that the South Bay Expressway will be successful because it runs along a fast-growing suburban area and offers an alternative to the congested Interstate 5 border crossing in San Ysidro, the nation’s busiest border crossing, where more than 35,000 vehicles pass daily.

“The road benefited as time passed and development filled in,” said South Bay Expressway chief executive Greg Hulsizer. “It’s not just in the path of development but in the midst of development.”

The $800-million toll road took 18 years to plan and build, and was delayed by more than a year amid environmental concerns and public debate. About $635 million was put in by the investment bank that owns the toll road. A $140-million federal loan provided the bulk of the rest, and a sales tax measure kicked in about $32 million.

Commuters paying electronically through a debit account will spend between 75 cents to $3.75 per trip, based on the length of trip. Cash payments at toll booths will be a quarter to $1.50 more.

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Officials are considering enacting “dynamic pricing,” in which the toll would be based on fast-changing commuter demand, with the highest rates charged when traffic is the heaviest. After 35 years, the four-lane road will revert to the state.

The private tollway was one of four approved by the state Legislature in 1989. Two were never built, and a stretch of private toll road was opened along Route 91 in Orange County in 1995. The 91 Toll Lanes were eventually sold to the Orange County Transportation Authority. Motorists pay nearly $10 per trip to use the toll road during peak rush hours.

In San Diego County, the South Bay Expressway has met with anticipation from commuters, who say freeways have not kept up with suburban building and worsening border traffic.

“We’ve been waiting for this road for 17 years,” said Beth Karkainen, 43, who lives in Chula Vista’s Otay Ranch neighborhood. “I’m always on the go. I need to be able to move, and move quickly. I have no problem paying for it.”

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Melissa Melgoza, 18, said her drive from Chula Vista to San Diego State University usually is 45 minutes. She hopes the toll road will cut that time significantly -- and if so she says it will be worth the cost. “You’re paying for convenience,” she said. “It’ll be faster, definitely more convenient.”

But for others, the expense is considerable. And they wonder whether shaving a few minutes off their commute is worth as much $37.50 a week.

“I was waiting for it to open for a long time. But I don’t want to pay,” said Saul Rios, 33, a resident of Chula Vista’s Eastlake neighborhood. “I think it’ll be expensive to pay every day. I don’t know if I’ll take it. Gas prices are already so high.”

For San Diego County officials, the expressway is just a first step. They are considering a plan that would allow solo drivers to use the carpool lane on freeway onramps in exchange for a toll. Transportation agencies said computers would track users using transponders.

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“It’s all done electronically,” said Pedro Orso-Delgado, a Caltrans director for San Diego and Imperial counties.

While the concept is probably decades away, the county has also talked about eventually converting some freeway medians into lanes for computer-operated vehicles that could drive close to one another at fast speeds.

San Diego County has received national attention for its aggressive focus on innovation when it comes to toll roads.

But there are limited lessons for Los Angeles, which is just beginning to look at similar measures. San Diego County has been able to expand roads and build new ones in part because the region developed later than Los Angeles, with more care taken to freeway planning.

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Los Angeles has far less space available to add toll lanes and toll roads. And tearing down homes and businesses to make way for new roads is both highly expensive and politically difficult. Efforts to widen the 710 and 101 freeways have been mired for years in debate.

Carol Inge, chief of planning for the MTA, said she thinks the San Diego County toll road will be successful. But it’s not necessarily a fit for L.A. Letting solo drivers pay to use L.A.'s carpool lanes is problematic because these lanes are already heavily traveled. To do that, carpoolers would only be able travel for free if three or maybe four rode in a car, instead of two, Inge said. The rest would have pay, and that would make a lot of people unhappy, she said.

Then there’s the option of double-decking freeways to accommodate toll roads.

“That gets very expensive. I’m not sure tolls would pay for the entire cost,” Inge said.

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Genevieve Giuliano, director of the National Center for Metropolitan Transportation Research and a professor at USC, said she thinks L.A.'s chances of adopting congestion pricing is probably “less than 50/50.”

“There’s no clean way of doing it,” she said. “L.A. has a fragmented decision-making environment and a lot of groups have veto power.”

And lest anyone forget amid the celebrating, Giuliano said, it took San Diego County a long time to get the South Bay Expressway built. Environmentalists and some residents fought the toll road for years, and it also took time to get financing together.

“It’s not like they figured out some magic to make controversial decisions and get things done quickly,” Giuliano said. “Even for them, it’s taken a lot of effort, a lot of work, and in a much less complicated environment than L.A.”

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In San Diego County, many residents hail the new road. But others say they’ll find other creative ways to get around before they give a nickel for the right to get somewhere faster.

“It should be free, because we pay taxes,” said Michelle Dillard, 44, of Chula Vista. “I’m mad that they’re charging. I’ll keep taking the back streets like I do.”

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hector.becerra@latimes.com

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ron.lin@latimes.com


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