Road to Ruin

The toll road is bleeding money and the Weekly wants you to know what the TCA, local dailies won't tell you: it's a looming financial disaster

Government of, by and for the rich is nothing new in Orange County. Nor is it limited to toll-road politics. According to the business community and the public officials in their pockets, for example, an international airport at El Toro with flights every 53 seconds, 24 hours a day, will reduce pollution, reduce traffic and bring in billions and billions and billions in profit--without a single significant drawback.

To get the toll road built, many of the same people made similar promises. When the project started, it was supposed to cost $350 million. Then the numbers shot up to $500 million, then to $750 million, and then to $1.5 billion. The current $5 billion price tag is more than 14 times greater than original estimates. Several thousand dollars in developer fees--tacked on to the price of each new home in the South County--was supposed to pay for almost 50 percent of the road.

But finance was never a primary concern among toll-road boosters. They just wanted their road. Irvine Co. executive Hugh Fitzpatrick admitted as much to the Times in 1987, when he said, "Just let me get the project ready to be built, and the money will appear."

Voodoo economics extended not only to costs but also to projections about how many people would be willing to pay more than $1,000 a year in tolls. (Most of the commuters who use the road are charged $2 each way.) Here was the official spin for the tollway in 1988: "The traffic demand is so high for the San Joaquin project that it is difficult to find an upper limit on the amount of people willing to pay to use it." John Cox, a Newport Beach councilman and then-chairperson of the TCA, said in 1990, "I think people have historically underestimated the sorts of tolls these roads could generate." Tossing caution to the wind, toll-road officials told the public that 100,000 cars would travel the road on opening day. They were wrong by some 60,000 cars.

Despite the ugly numbers and the pending financial free fall, the bureaucrats at the TCA refuse to be anything but chipper. "We will continue to enjoy a strong commitment to the corridor," TCA spokesperson Paul Glaab recently told the Times. "If all of a sudden you set projections aside, this road is performing very well."

But multiple sources on the TCA board of directors said the road is not performing well and is in jeopardy of eventually going bankrupt--essentially giving Orange County another black eye two years after the county lost $1.6 billion.

In June 1996, Rod Holtman, acting director of operations for the TCA, told the media not to worry if projected monthly toll-road usage was 6 or 12 percent off, but, "should the percentage drop a great deal lower--say to the vicinity of 30 percent--then we're in trouble."

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