91 Freeway Toll Road: Users Like It, but Do Other Drivers?

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Typical users of state Route 91 toll lanes, according to a recent satisfaction survey, are fully employed, relatively well-off men who pay the fees to avoid long traffic delays when they drive to visit friends and relatives or for recreational outings.

Those least likely to pay for the 10-mile escape route around Orange and Riverside counties bottlenecks are students, the unemployed and those earning less than $25,000 a year.

Commuters heading to and from work constitute less than half of those who use toll lanes on Route 91, known as the Riverside Freeway.

The freeway runs roughly east to west across north Orange County from Los Angeles County to Riverside, where it joins state Route 60. The bottleneck on the road between state Route 55 and the Riverside County line has been notorious for decades, because it passes through a canyon where there are almost no alternate routes.

Overall, 90 percent of those who use the toll lanes said they “were generally satisfied with their experiences,” according to a user satisfaction survey submitted to the Orange County Transportation Authority board this week.

The generally satisfied travelers estimated they shave about half an hour from their travel times by paying the tolls. The average monthly toll bill for those surveyed was $57.55.

The purpose of the poll — which cost $28,598 and was conducted by True North Research of Encinitas — was to sample those who during a year used the toll lanes at least once a month and to determine how satisfied they were with the system.

But Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach, a member of the OCTA board, asked how those who can’t afford to pay the tolls or don’t for other reasons feel about the toll lanes?

Answer: Nobody’s ever asked them.

OCTA marketing manager Stella Lin told the board such a survey would be considered in the future.

Yet for the past 22 years, the emphasis has been on persuading drivers to pay tolls. The toll lanes cater to those who have the wherewithal to equip their cars with a transponder for recording tolls and to pay a monthly bill from Cofiroute USA, the private firm that manages the toll system for OCTA. There are no toll booths for those who use the lanes only occasionally.

In 1989, a bill by Assemblyman William P. Baker (R-Danville) created the 91 toll lanes as a pilot project. A special “no-compete” clause was added to the initial contract between CalTrans and the California Private Transportation Co., the private firm that built the toll lanes.

The purpose was to prevent adding more lanes to the freeway. Such improvements would ease congestion and potentially reduce profits the private company needed to pay for construction.

According to CalTrans, the private company spent $130 million to build the four toll lanes and opened them in 1995 as the nation’s “first toll road to employ variable congestion pricing.”

Under that system, the cost of traveling the toll lanes rises during hours when congestion is at its worst in the nontoll lanes.

The average weekday toll is $4.20 westbound between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m. and $5.59 eastbound between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Overall, tolls range from $1.30 to $9.75.

But by 2003, traffic tie-ups and accidents in the normal lanes became so bad that Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) authored legislation allowing the transportation authority to buy the toll lanes from the private company for $207 million and begin widening the freeway for all traffic. The OCTA has the authority to collect tolls until 2065.

According to the recent survey, the most frequent toll road users — those who paid three or more times a week — earned between $50,000 and $150,000 a year. The largest group, 28.2 percent, earned $100,000 to $150,000. More than three-fourths of the frequent drivers held full-time jobs, and about 55 percent were men.

Among occasional drivers with no transponders is KUSC classical radio host Dennis Bartel, who wrote in an email to Voice of OC earlier this year: “I try to insult the 91 [on the air] whenever the opportunity presents itself, and typically it is with the phrase ‘the worst freeway in the world’ by which I mean only that there are too many cars on it at any given time, day or night, weekday or weekend.”

Bartel’s personal life includes trips to the desert to visit his father, “so we make trips there often but avoid the 91 at all costs. Still, because it is such an unavoidable thoroughfare, I sometimes find myself on the 91 and invariably say to myself, ‘Why am I on this freeway again?’ “

According to the survey, the most common reasons drivers used the toll lanes was to speed up personal travel. More than two-thirds of users said they were visiting friends or relatives, shopping or on a recreational outing.

Less than half of all users, 46 percent, said they paid the toll to drive to and from work. But among those who used the toll lanes to commute to jobs, 75 percent began their trips in Riverside County. Fifty-eight percent of all work trips were headed for Orange County. Another 22 percent were headed for Los Angeles County.

For nontoll drivers, there’s a ray of hope for easing the traffic jams.

An $84-million Riverside Freeway widening project for the six miles between state Route 55 and the state Route 241 toll road in eastern Orange County is expected to be completed next fall, adding one free lane in each direction. Last year a smaller section was widened between the Route 241 and state Route 71 in Riverside County. Money from tolls contributed a small amount to that project.

Please contact Tracy Wood directly at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/tracyVOC.

 

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