Photo by Coral WilsonThroughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) officials said private interests—drivers, developers and Wall Street bondholders—would pay for the road. Which may explain why some people wandering the corridors of the county Hall of Administration on May 4 looked puzzled. On that day, the board voted 4-1 to appropriate $750,000 in taxpayer funds for repair work on the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor.
But for those worried that the move is yet another example of county tax dollars subsidizing the "private" toll road, don't worry: county officials say the state-taxpayer-funded Caltrans will reimburse the county for all repair expenses.
"It's one more thing we can blame on El Niño," said 5th District Supervisor Tom Wilson at the May 4 meeting. Wilson said unusually bad weather in late 1997 and early 1998 caused so much damage to the South County toll road that repairs would add $250,000 to the county's usual $500,000 maintenance contract with Caltrans.
"It was due in part to an increase in weed growth due to El Niño,"said Caltrans spokeswoman Rose Orem. "We had to increase the amount of mulching to do weed control. And [there were] citizen complaints about some of the landscaping."
This maintenance-budget increase comes on top of a separate $2 million toll-road reconstruction job. Last November, Caltrans began repaving 11 miles of the 2-year-old road's 15 miles after numerous lawsuits stemming from rain-related auto accidents claimed the TCA ignored such faults as "excessive slipperiness, poor traction, and improper surface structure and design." But Caltrans failed to finish before that year's rainy season and will have to complete the job this year.
For toll-road opponents, the Caltrans repair work seemed to corroborate their charges—made during road construction—that TCA slapped the road together as quickly and cheaply as possible. "The surface was very unsatisfactory and very non-uniform," said Tom Hall, a chemist and longtime toll-road critic, in November. "When it rained, I could tell the whole thing was in trouble. It was already so full of patches that it looked like a quilt."
TCA and Caltrans officials insist the San Joaquin Hills toll road is already safe—that the new repair and reconstruction work will merely "make it safer." The message on electronic TCA billboards warning drivers to be careful during rainy weather is hardly encouraging.
Neither is the official Caltrans excuse that "because there's less traffic on the road, there's a tendency to speed." The San Joaquin Hills toll road—like all toll roads—gets its revenues from drivers. The drivers pay tolls, which pay bonds—bonds that make up 86 percent of all toll-road financing (up from 77 percent 10 months ago), according to the latest TCA figures. By relying so much on bonds, TCA ends up spreading out the debt until (as in the case of the San Joaquin Hills toll road) the cost of the road balloons from a projected $350 million in the 1980s to more than $5 billion.
In other words, everything works if the road is popular. Unfortunately for the TCA (and state taxpayers), the road is a flop. According to the TCA, there were just 69,508 average daily transactions for the week ending April 25. That figure is typical for the past six months—it's also 27,000 less than TCA officials originally forecast.
All this despite a slick cross-promotional campaign between the TCA and the Los Angeles Times. In the past year, the TCA has run quarter-page ads in the Times telling readers to "get a life" and enjoy a "stress-free commute with a great view" while drivers stopping at toll booths draped with massive Times banners received fliers saying, "The Times Orange County invites you to jump on the San Joaquin toll road and check things out for yourself."
Growing debt, poor construction, Times ads and more public financing—who wouldn't want to support that?