Toll roads are holding back freeway work
SANTA ANA – It seemed like a good idea at the time, but critics say state guarantees designed to help toll roads survive are now hampering anti-gridlock efforts.
Toll road owners can veto public highway improvements such as new lanes if they would take away customers. They successfully blocked expansion of the Riverside Freeway, one of the most congested in the state. Potentially, they could prevent the widening of a third of the 222 miles of freeway in Orange County.
The county has 61 miles of toll road, more than anywhere else in California, operated by the $3.7-billion Transportation Corridor Agencies.
“Toll roads are an evil necessity,” said Tim Keenan, a board member of the Orange County Transportation Authority. “They were an innovative solution to build freeways, but the burden of their success should not fall on all the drivers in Orange County.”
The clauses were deemed a good idea back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when California lacked money to build or expand freeways and the population of some regions was soaring.
Pay-as-you-go roads could handle some of the traffic. The agreements were designed to give investors and bond-buyers confidence that the roads would be a success.
“These highways would have never been built or never built in the time frame we built them in,” said Walter D. Kreutzen, chief executive of the Transportation Corridor Agencies. “There is still a shortage of state funds for highways.”
But state Attorney General Bill Lockyer argues restricting freeway construction to help the tollways was a mistake.
“What we now have is a two-tiered system: a road system for the wealthy and a deteriorating one for the rest of us,” he said. “The toll road is just a polite form of highway robbery.”
One success story is the privately owned 91 Express Lanes, which run on the Riverside County Freeway median for 10 miles from Anaheim to the Riverside County line. The four lanes opened in 1995 and are packed during rush hours. Commuters pay more than $8 a day for a round trip.
Under an agreement with the California Department of Transportation, the toll road owners can currently veto highway improvements along 30 miles of the freeway if they would take away customers. The protection ends in 2030 when the lanes will become public.
In the meantime, tollway owners went to court in the late 1990s to prevent Caltrans from widening the freeway. Under a settlement, Caltrans can add new lanes only when volume increases 37 percent from the current figure, which could take as long as 15 years at current projections.
The settlement prompted burgeoning Riverside County to sue the tollway owners and Caltrans last year. The city of Corona sued the agency several months ago.
“The agreement has allowed a private company to put a stranglehold on the Riverside Freeway,” said Jeffrey V. Dunn, an attorney for Riverside County. “You can’t put a company’s profit above public welfare.”
In Irvine, transportation officials are trying to determine whether plans to widen offramps and bridges and otherwise ease congestion at five “chokepoints” on the San Diego and Santa Ana freeways would violate a toll road agreement.
The San Joaquin Hills Tollway could lose motorists, said James D. Brown, director of engineering and environmental planning for the toll road operator.
“We are not here to stop projects,” Brown said, “but we need a safety net.”