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Recession slows use of Orange County’s toll roads

Orange County’s 51-mile network of toll roads, once hailed as a model in solving Southern California’s traffic woes, is experiencing drops in ridership as commuters opt for more time on the freeway instead of paying tolls that can exceed $7.75 per trip at peak hours.

The economic malaise has prompted transportation officials to resort to contests to lure new users. But for Christina Muscat and other drivers, money is tight, and it’s a hard sell.

She used to shave about 20 minutes off her commute from Rancho Santa Margarita to Westminster by using the toll roads; now she chooses the system only if she’s in a hurry.

Muscat, 19, would rather save her $7 daily toll for gas money. She doesn’t believe in paying to use roads.

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“It’s just expensive,” Muscat said of the roads, which run through the east and west sides of Orange County.

Orange County has two toll road systems — the 51-mile system operated by Transportation Corridor Agencies and the 91 Express Lanes, operated by the Orange County Transportation Authority, which also runs the county’s buses.

Travel on both systems declined a few years ago as the economic downturn altered construction and travel patterns. Because of the recession, toll road use projected for this decade did not materialize.

Although the 91 Express Lane has recovered somewhat in the last fiscal year, the 51-mile system has not.

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From the beginning of the economic decline in 2007 through the fiscal year that ended in June 2010, trips were down 19% on the San Joaquin Toll Road, the portion of the 51-mile system known as California Highway 73. On the system’s Foothill and Eastern toll roads, which include California Highways 241, 261 and 133, trips declined 17% in the same period, according to the Transportation Corridor Agencies.

That agency is trying to remind drivers about the roads by holding drawings and raffles, said Lisa Telles, the chief communications officer. Drivers who register their accounts, for example, are entered in a monthly drawing for $1,000 in tolls. Last fall, the agency offered $30 credits to new customers.

Meanwhile, the 91 Express Lane, which runs from California 55 to the Riverside County-Orange County line, has fared slightly better. After dropping since the start of the recession, use increased 5% in the most recent fiscal year.

One difference between the two systems is location. The 91 Express Lane runs along a route through steep hills; there are very few alternate roads. Drivers using the 51-mile system can opt for the 5 and 405 freeways.

The 51-mile system is both a success story and a victim of the economy. Orange County was one of the first regions in the nation to turn to toll lanes. For many, especially those in the southern part of the county, the roads cut commute times in half.

“I really, really think that once the economy picks up you’re going to see the numbers pick up,” said Sarah Catz, a research associate with the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Irvine. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”

Other cities are turning to toll lanes, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, which plans to charge commuters to use carpool lanes on the 110 and 10 freeways by 2013.

Rick Jager, a spokesman with the Los Angeles County Transportation Authority, said the Los Angeles lanes would not open until at least late 2012 or early 2013, so he believes the recession won’t be an issue.

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“We’re still a ways off before implementation,” he said.

Despite the recession, Telles, of the Transportation Corridor Agencies, said the agency is making its debt payments even though people aren’t using the 18-year-old system as often as they used to. From fiscal year 2007 to 2010, rates on the toll roads have increased by at least 25 cents each year, but revenue is still down by about 7% on the Foothill and Eastern toll roads and by about 2% on the San Joaquin Toll Road.

Part of the fiscal problem is that the projected use of the roads has not materialized, said Martin Wachs, a transportation expert at Rand Corp., a think tank in Santa Monica.

“Congestion isn’t getting as bad as it was forecast to get,” Wachs said. In fiscal year 2010, the Foothill and Eastern toll roads were used 30% less than had been projected. On the San Joaquin road, projections were off by 56%.

Wachs said the bigger picture is that toll roads are having problems across the country.

“There are other roads just like it [Orange County], in other places that are having similar problems,” he said.

South Bay Expressway, the operator of California 125, a toll road through San Diego County to the U.S.-Mexico border, filed for bankruptcy in March.

“They couldn’t pay off their roads,” Wachs said.

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Marlon Boarnet, a UC Irvine professor of planning policy and design and economics, said he thinks the tell roads will ultimately succeed in Orange County because they offer an alternative and they make people’s drive easier.

“People don’t like being forced into taking the toll road,” he said. “One rule of thumb is it’s really important that people have choice.”

Catz, his UC Irvine colleague, agreed. Toll roads have demonstrated that the people of Orange County are willing to be pioneers, she said.

“It’s very accepted here,” she said. “It’s just a matter of money right now.”

nicole.santacruz@latimes.com


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