Toll Road Warrior

William Woollett Jr.'s long reign of shame

If you're looking for a symbol of all that's wrong with Orange County politics, you might reasonably settle on 70-year-old William Woollett Jr.

Before announcing his retirement last week, Woollett was head of the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA), the county's toll-road bureaucracy. Beginning in 1989, he presided over the construction of 41 miles of roads, opening vast tracts of wild country to the county's most powerful developers.

Under Woollett, the TCA became notable for more than road building. It inadvertently constructed a reputation for raw power, secrecy and financial instability. "If you wanted to show a bureaucracy that is absolutely unresponsive to the public, the TCA under Bill Woollett would be textbook case," said Tom Rogers, who headed the county Republican party in the early 1970s. "Woollett epitomizes the arrogance of the toll-road agency, which is perhaps the most unresponsive agency in Orange County, if not in the state of California."

When the first of the toll roads, San Joaquin Hills, opened in 1997, the TCA predicted that 100,000 cars would travel some part of its 17 miles each day. Sadly for Woollett, less than half that number turned up, and the toll road began clocking daily losses of $100,000.

Woollett compounded financial mismanagement with untenable secrecy. Scrambling to refinance the roads and hide the debacle from the public, Woollett's senior staffers demanded that TCA board members--12 elected officials from the county Board of Supervisors and local cities--sign non-disclosure agreements. Several board members refused. At the time, one told the Weekly that Woollett's staff "threatened us--forcefully --to keep our mouths shut. They didn't want the public to know the truth that the toll road is a financial disaster. They are desperate for people to believe everything is rosy."

Things have been anything but rosy at TCA. The roads were first planned amid controversy in the 1960s and completed in the 1990s only after overcoming lawsuits, massive demonstrations and occasional acts of civil disobedience. More recently, Woollett has taken flack for spending $4.8 million on his agency's Irvine headquarters (at a time when the building was valued at just $3 million) and for the agency's practice of rewarding its executives with annual salaries approaching $150,000--plus cars and cash for unused vacation and sick time.

Cost overruns have been a constant under Woollett--all the more remarkable when you consider that Woollett's financial wizard and successor at TCA, Walter Kreutzen, was a finance expert for Woollett during much of his tenure as Irvine's city manager from 1971-1989. When the road building began, TCA estimated that the toll roads would cost $350 million. That number quickly soared to $500 million, then to $750 million and then to $1.5 billion. Under Woollett, more recent calculations suggest the final price tag--$5 billion--will be 14 times greater than original estimates.

Critics charge that Woollett is not only an enemy of the environment, but that he is also scornful of democracy. One TCA board member said senior members of Woollett's staff "act as if the agency belongs to them personally and is not accountable to the public." Indeed, when news of TCA's financial troubles made it into the press last year, Woollett's staff carried out a dual-track strategy, attempting to spin the story in the press (the Register dutifully translated TCA propaganda into a story headlined "Road Bonds in No Danger Before 1999") and then seeking to stop elected officials from talking publicly about the shortfall.

"The senior staff wants us to be a rubber stamp for what they decide in private amongst themselves," said another elected official who sits on the 12-member board. "It's fair to say they want us to follow them blindly."

"There's a certain arrogance that has permeated the organization at the top levels of management. I attribute that to Woollett," said Rogers.

Woollett hasn't changed much during his 40-year career in government. An Irvine city employee recalls that, while he was that city's manager, Woollett tried occasionally to inspire his staff by reminding them that "council members come and go. 'In Irvine,' Bill used to say, 'the only two permanent political features are city staff and the Irvine Co.'" (A number of sources said that long after Woollett left Irvine City Hall for the TCA, Irvine's city manager's office is still so closely linked to the Irvine Co. that elected officials can never be certain that what they're told by city staff is what's really true or what the Irvine Co. wants officials to believe is true.)

The best that may be said for Woollett is that he did for TCA what he was hired to do--without questioning its moral context and, indeed, without seeming aware there was a moral context to roadbuilding. Announcing his retirement, he told a Times reporter he is "a strong supporter of the environment"--without any apparent sense of irony.

Woollett might indeed be remembered as the William Mulholland of asphalt--except that Mulholland brought water to Southern California in addition to unchecked growth and political corruption. Only developers and their mouthpieces on the Board of Supervisors try to argue that the destruction of Orange County's last remaining foothills, a popular state park and Laguna Canyon (among other vanishing features of wild Orange County) were a fair trade for Woollett's roads.

 

Nathan Callahan and R. Scott Moxley contributed to this article.

 
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