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Leaders of the Orange County Transportation Authority want to halt a proposed $180 million connecting ramp between the 241 toll road and the 91 freeway toll lanes, citing concerns the timing of the project would increase traffic on the already congested 91 freeway.

Commuters traveling north on the 241 toll road currently have to merge across five lanes of traffic on the 91 freeway to enter the 91 toll lanes. The proposed connector bridge, which also would require drivers to pay an additional toll, would deposit drivers from the 241 onto the 91 toll lanes, bypassing non-toll traffic on the 91 freeway.

Click to enlarge. OCTA officials say the proposed connector ramp would affect eastbound portions of the 91 Freeway headed into Riverside County. The Riverside County Transportation Commission (RCTC) manages an 8-mile portion of the 91 freeway, shown above. Credit: Orange County Transportation Authority

The 241 toll road runs north-to-south, beginning at the 91 freeway in Anaheim Hills, and ending at the southern tip of Orange County.

Proponents with the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA), the agency leading the project, say the new ramp will improve evening rush hour traffic and increase safety in the congested area where the two highways meet.  But officials with OCTA say the benefits are minimal.

While conditions going west on the 91 freeway are projected to improve if the bridge is built, “in the eastbound direction, the proposed connector would result in additional congestion on SR-91 due to increase in demand,” states an OCTA staff report.

“The principal issue causing the congestion is insufficient capacity on the SR-91 and the Project does little to address the core problem,” said OCTA CEO Darrell Johnson in a letter to the Transportation Corridor Agencies.

Meanwhile, Michael Kraman, CEO of the Transportation Corridor Agencies, said the data that OCTA officials are relying on is outdated.

At their board meeting Dec. 11, OCTA leaders voted 10-3 to ask TCA to cease work on the project, at least for now, until they’ve had the chance to discuss other alternatives to improve traffic on the 91 freeway. Board directors Mark Murphy, Barbara Delgleize and Tom Tait voted no.

The OCTA board’s decision was backed by a letter from the Riverside County Transportation Commission (RCTC), whose executive director Anne Mayer asked Orange County toll road officials to defer construction of the project, citing similar concerns.

After the meeting, Kraman said he “takes seriously” the OCTA board’s vote.

But “they asked for it in a way that makes it seem like they want to stop the project,” Kraman said.

The Transportation Corridor Agencies is made up of two bodies that build, finance and manage toll roads in Orange County. However, OCTA, the regional transportation board, owns the 91 toll roads after purchasing them from a private company in 2002.

OCTA officials say they’re not opposed to the project in its entirety, but its timing.

The connector ramp currently is scheduled to begin construction as soon as 2019.

Since the re-opening of the 91 Freeway in Riverside County in March – a $1.4 billion project that added general purpose lanes and reconstructed interchanges – traffic volume along that corridor has been much higher than the Riverside agency projected, according to a Nov. 28 letter from Mayer to TCA.

OCTA and the Riverside Commission both want to explore options for addressing the 91 freeway’s capacity, such as adding an additional lane, before the tolled ramp project moves forward.

Johnson, the CEO of OCTA, said the Transportation Corridor Agencies has moved forward quickly on the project despite his objections, at one point awarding a contract for design of the connector ramp despite Johnson asking the agency not to.

“Our concern is that TCA continues to move forward over our objections and questions and concerns,” said Johnson of OCTA. “We have not been able to get, at a staff level, our concerns addressed in a timely and sufficient manner.”

Kraman said that TCA addressed most of OCTA’s concerns in a Nov. 13 letter to the agency.

Among the promises made in that letter, TCA agreed to update multiple studies with new data, limit traffic on the new connector ramp and study the possibility of adding a sixth general purpose lane to the 91 freeway.

Lori Donchak, a San Clemente City Councilwoman, said though she once supported the project, more recent studies have shown the project to be less promising.

“This seemed like a missing link, but as more information becomes available, it looks like maybe this isn’t as bulletproof that it looks,” said Donchak.

OCTA board chair Michael Hennessey said the board’s vote protects the board’s goal of “not doing anything that adds to a commute that we have fought for years to reduce.”

Tait, who is also the mayor of Anaheim, said he believed the connector ramp is a good project.

“It seems like we should at least continue it, study it more,” said Tait. “We’ve been talking about this a very long time. To stop seems kind of crazy to me.”

Caltrans official Ryan Chamberlain, a nonvoting member of the OCTA board and a state director of transportation for Orange County, criticized the OCTA staff report for omitting certain indicators that show the project’s benefits.

“Why we’re taking a pause on this now is beyond me,” said Chamberlain.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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