Photo by OCW staffTALL TOLL TALES
Northern Virginia officials believe toll lanes may unclog their overburdened freeways thanks to a deceptively rosy study that claims our own 91 Express significantly shrinks drive times, shifts traffic off surface streets, and shortens morning and afternoon rush hours. Which brings up a pertinent question: Whadda fuck? Any driver who has sat in that sea of tin known hereabouts as the 91 knows that the dreaded "Lexus Lanes" make freeway, city-street and rush-hour traffic worse. While the Virginians have seen damning data that show the predominantly lightly traveled High Occupancy Toll systems don't alleviate traffic snarls, they continue to get the hard sell from private backers of OC's toll lanes. In a Jan. 19 Washington Post story, Dan Beal, spokesman for the Costa Mesa-based Automobile Club of Southern California, rationalizes that "everyone values their time" and that people can "choose" pay lanes as needed. Greg Hulsizer, the general manager for the private company that manages the 91 Express recently purchased by the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), maintains that even though congestion has not improved on the 91, it would be worse were it not for the toll lanes. For those keeping score at home, that was Hulsizer with the classic non-answer and Beal failing to mention that motorists can only "choose" to "value their time" on the 91 Express if their vehicles have been pre-equipped with electronic transponders (for which subscribers pay a monthly fee and suffer penalties if they do not use them enough). But there are far more damning errors of omission when it comes to toll lanes, which have been an utter financial flop despite Hulsizer's claim that the 91 Express has turned the corner toward profitability (thanks to taxpayer-backed refinancing of its enormous debt). Indeed, OCTA recently took over the 91 Express due to those mounting losses and an insipid no-compete clause that prevented much-needed widening of the 91 freeway. Which brings up the real advice Orange County should pass along to Northern Virginia:
•Don't do what we did by allowing your system to be hatched by profiteers and without public disclosure.
•Be aware of potential lawsuits from neighboring, traffic-impacted municipalities that might not share your zeal for toll lanes. Orange County faces legal action from Riverside County, which alleges that by charging the highest tolls in the nation, the 91 Express freezes out too many drivers and overburdens the freeway, and Corona, which blames clogged city streets on the no-compete clause reached in secret by the state and the original private toll company that went bust.
•Take testimony from actual drivers of the 91 who claim traffic is at its worst—and most dangerous—at the points where vehicles enter and exit the toll lanes. (We'd ask the California Highway Patrol if they have data to substantiate this, but they no doubt operate under OC's secret No-Give-Bad-News clause.)
•Know that whenever it has been revealed that revenues from the 91 Express haven't met projections, toll-road subscribers have reportedly complained they're hit with fines for bogus "violations."
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•If you heed no other advice, heed this: when you eventually take the lanes over from the private company that's losing tens of millions of dollars operating the system, resist the urge to do as Orange County just did and hand them $207 million for a system that's $135 million in debt—all on the backs of your taxpayers.
THEY SEE THE LIGHT
Four young people braved fair temperatures, twilight and oncoming headlights the evening of Jan. 23 to share with passing motorists their disgust over the amount of electricity the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) headquarters in Costa Mesa burns for its viewable-from-the-Space Shuttle decorative light display. We always squint and shake our heads in disbelief when we catch the tele-vangelical ministry's worldwide headquarters at night from the 405 freeway. But to be truly disgusted, take a gander from the sidewalk along Bear Street in front of TBN. Holy shit, that's bright! It was there that the protesting foursome—one girl, three guys, all in their late high school/early college years—planted themselves for the Thursday evening drive. They represented no organized group—nor even an unorganized group like the Democratic Party. "This is just something we've been planning to do a little while," explained Chris, who, like the others, gave no last name.
"Christmas was over a month ago," said Brian, who bikes past the display nightly. "But they still have their 'Happy Birthday, Jesus' sign up."
According to Russell, the only official reaction to the modest demonstration from TBN came when two security guards asked what the four were up to, then disappeared silently into that no-good night. As for reading a word—or, more specifically, the several words—on the signs these nascent activists toted, drivers needed infra-red night goggles to make out "Lights Out" (complete with upside-down crucifix), "Thou Shalt Not Waste Electricity," "Electric Bill or Food for Homeless? Turn Your Lights Off" and, our personal fave, "WWJD? Kick Your Ass for Wasting Energy." Standing next to the protesters, reading the placards was no problem—especially when they were turned toward Paul and Jan Crouch's electric orgy.