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Riverside Press-Enterprise - Region in Line for Vital Freeway Funding

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Toll lanes are coming to Corona, transportation officials said, following a federal announcement providing the last funding piece for Riverside County's largest road project.

The U.S. Transportation Department announced Tuesday it would accept an application for the funds needed to complete a $1.3 billion project to widen a chronically congested stretch of Highway 91.

The announcement, a major victory for Inland Southern California after two earlier tries failed to get all the money needed, was hailed as the game-changing decision that will finally extend toll lanes into Riverside County.

"Having this announcement really moves this project from being something that wasn't exactly there yet," said John Standiford, deputy director of the Riverside County Transportation Commission. "It's less conceptual and a bit more real now."

The work will extend the two toll lanes between Highway 55 and the Orange County line to Interstate 15 in Corona, as well as add a general-use lane in both directions from the county line to Pierce Street in Riverside.

About one-third of the project, $444.6 million, will be funded by a federal loan, which local officials will repay once the project is completed in about five years.

"We are fully engaged and anxious to get started," said Supervisor John Benoit.

The project would create an estimated 4,600 jobs in Riverside County and as many as 16,000 statewide. Construction would start in fall 2013, with work expected to finish in late 2017.

Along the route, numerous businesses will be affected by the widening, something officials have been addressing for years through some land purchases. More land will be acquired once the environmental analysis is approved by state and federal officials.

Tuesday's announcement follows a decision in January to loan the project about $200 million. Though officials commended the earlier award, they said more was needed to ensure the project had all its funding in place.

Critical funding

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the Riverside County Transportation Commission has been selected to apply for the funds through the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, which provides loans, loan guarantees and lines of credit to large and nationally or regionally significant transportation projects.

Benoit said the decision by Congress to expand the TIFIA program helped Riverside County make the cut, albeit in two stages.

"When you're looking for $400 million or so and the whole pot is just double that, your chances are slim," Benoit said.

Federal transportation officials will loan the transportation commission one-third of the project's expected cost. Tolls collected on the route will repay the money, as well as other bonds the transportation commission will sell to fund the project.

For drivers, the toll trip will be seamless, with Riverside and Orange counties sharing their portion of the revenues for tolls paid in the respective counties.

Inland officials have looked to the federal government for $444.6 million needed to complete financing for the project. The final award is subject to final terms and negotiations, but area lawmakers heralded LaHood's announcement as an approval.

"This is the last piece of the puzzle," said Rep. Ken Calvert, a vocal supporter of the freeway upgrade. "The 91 freeway is a famous bottleneck that hinders goods movement to the rest of the country, and it's a local commuter nightmare."

Calvert, R-Corona, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who worked together on the effort, both said they received phone calls early Tuesday from LaHood, informing them of the news.

"Last month while driving on State Route 91, I saw firsthand the congestion that hamstrings hundreds of thousands of Californians, not only during rush hour, but 24 hours a day," Feinstein said. "The 91 Corridor Improvement Project will improve the lives of millions of Californians while substantially growing the regional economy across Southern California."

Calvert described the Inland area's coordinated push for the funding as "one of those rare moments when we all worked together (on an initiative) and got it done."

Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif, also lobbied for the money, while Assemblyman Jeff Miller, R-Corona, sponsored state legislation in support of the project.

The team effort, which also included local business leaders and county officials traveling to Washington to confer with lawmakers, helped the project gain traction with federal transportation officials.

"We felt we made the case, so we felt pretty confident about that," said Anne Mayer, the transportation commission's

Work in progress

Finalizing the funding is an important step, but many details remain for the project. An environmental report for the project should be completed by late July or August, said Michael Blomquist, toll project director for the transportation commission.

Simultaneously, officials will narrow the field of four potential teams that will design and build the project. The four groups -- most led by national construction and engineering firms -- will receive a more detailed proposal that includes the federal funding, Blomquist said.

One of the teams is expected to be chosen by early next year, he said, so that construction could begin by late 2013.

The project is one of a handful around the state using design-build, where a team is selected to design and build the project to speed up construction. Use of design-build required state approval.

The process differs from design sequencing, which was blamed for cost overruns and delays in rebuilding the 60/91/215 interchange.

Officials stress the project isn't just a road expansion. Part of the plan for adding toll lanes includes doubling the number of buses operated between Riverside County and Orange County. Twenty commuter buses currently run between Corona and Orange and Riverside and Costa Mesa.

Widening the road will allow the buses to use toll lanes, which in turn will allow them to make the trip more quickly and become more attractive to commuters, officials said.

"This is a comprehensive improvement," Standiford said, "We are committed to investing in the corridor."


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