During the next 12 months, the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) plans to build a an additional westbound lane on the 91 Freeway for a few miles just west of Riverside County. Such minor highway work might seem unremarkable — except for the fact that the agency spent $207 million simply for the right to pursue the project.
In January, OCTA took possession of a 10-mile-long toll road in the median of the publicly owned 91 Freeway. The public purchase of the private toll road marked another chapter in California's decades-long struggle to provide highways for its growing population and the even faster growing number of cars and trucks. More directly, the OCTA's buyout of California Private Transportation Company means that transportation planners can get serious about improving circulation between Inland Empire homes and job sites in coastal cities. They are talking about more lanes on the 91 and improving some major highway junctions. And planners are talking about a new route between the counties — a conversation that Orange County has only recently been willing to join.
"We're really trying to foster a cooperative atmosphere. We want to make things better," said Ellen Burton, section manager in OCTA's strategic planning division. "I've been here a long time, and if feels like a log jam has been removed."
State legislation approved in 1989 authorized the constriction of four private tollways. The 91 Express Lanes, which opened in December 1995, was the only one of the private roads that has actually been built. About the same time that the toll road opened, Southern California began shaking off an extended economic slump. The number of jobs in Orange County and in the industrial cities of southwestern Los Angeles County exploded. And many of the people who filled those jobs purchased homes 40 miles or more inland in western Riverside and San Bernardino counties. By the late 1990s, the 91 Freeway — the only freeway directly linking the Inland Empire with Orange County — had become one of the region's most congested.
However, the agreement that allowed the California Private Transportation Company to build the toll lanes included a "non-compete" clause that essentially gave the private company veto power over projects that would ease 91 Freeway congestion until 2030. Riverside County officials in particular chafed at the non-compete clause because the restriction extended for eight miles along the 91 corridor into Riverside County, even though the toll lanes ended at the county line.
Making the situation even more tense was the stance of some Orange County officials, who said the problem was Riverside County's. When Riverside County attempted to get Orange County cooperation with Riverside County's integrated land use and transportation plan, for example, Orange County showed little official interest.
Orange County appears to have come around for a variety of political and economic reasons. A redrawn assembly district now extends along the 91 Freeway to include chunks of both counties, whereas the district formerly did not contain any portion of Riverside County. Orange County business leaders have also made it known that they rely on workers from Riverside County. Although Riverside County is seeing significant job growth, by 2010 Riverside County will still be housing-rich/jobs-poor, and Orange County will have more jobs than local residents can fill, according to a study commissioned by OCTA and Riverside County. "Neither county can realistically meet its own local employment needs without facilitating the movement of workers between both sub-regions," said the study by Economics & Politics Inc., and Alfred Gobar Associates.
During 2001, the OCTA began moving toward a purchase of the 91 Express Lanes. In September 2002, Gov. Davis signed AB1010 (Correa), which authorized OCTA's purchase of the toll lanes. The OCTA board gave final approval for the $207 million deal in November, and OCTA took possession on January 3.
Although now under public ownership, the 91 Express Lanes remain a toll road. The agency likely will continue to collect tolls at least until the purchase cost is recouped, OCTA spokesman Ted Nguyen said.
With the non-compete clause gone, the OCTA has several two projects it intends to pursue immediately, said OCTA's Burton. First up will be an $8 million additional westbound lane from Riverside County to Coal Canyon Road. The new lane is scheduled to open by January 2004. The next project will be the addition of a lane in each direction between Highway 71 in Riverside County and Highway 241, a public toll road in eastern Orange County. That project will cost about $46 million, although the design in not final, Burton said.
"Our job right now is to get these projects prepared for funding," said Burton, who acknowledged that the state budget mess could delay construction.
With voter approval in November for extension of a half-cent sales tax for transportation, the Riverside County Transportation Commission (RCTC) will have the money to extend the additional lanes to Interstate 15 in Corona. Improvements to the 91 Freeway's interchanges with the 71 and I-15 are also planned, RCTC spokesman John Standiford said. The agency should have enough money by 2009, but it might issue bonds to speed construction, he said.
Future Orange County projects include adding capacity to the 91 Freeway between Highway 241 and Highway 55 in Orange. And the biggest project of all will likely come as a result of a proposed "regionally significant transportation investment study." That two-county study is supposed to identify new ways to link the counties. One alternative is constructing a new freeway either through or in a tunnel under the Cleveland National Forest. The OCTA is developing a scope of work and doing technical background study for the big study, which will take 18 to 24 months to complete, beginning later this year, Burton said.
Some of the new cooperation can be seen in creation of a new advisory committee to oversee operation of the 91 Express Lanes. The OCTA and the RCTC will each have five committee representatives; Caltrans will have two appointees and the San Bernardino Association of Governments will have one representative. The first meeting is scheduled for this month.
The staffs of the OCTA and RCTC are communicating more than ever before, RCTC's Standiford said. Representatives of the two agencies and Caltrans met in January and decided they would collectively decide which projects could provide the most congestion relief, Caltrans spokeswoman Pam Gorniak said.
Ellen Burton, OCTA, (714) 560-5923.
John Standiford, RCTC, (909) 787-7141.
OCTA website: www.octa.net