Highway Robbery - Toll Roads

OCs toll roads were supposed to be the model for our transportation future. Now they look like road kill

•TCA bureaucrats—who have a knack for dubious financial maneuvers, deceitful public-relations strategies and secrecy—demanded in 1997 that the public officials who govern the agency sign "confidentiality certificates." The certificates prohibited the officials from ever divulging information the senior staff deemed unfit for public consumption. A majority of the elected officials signed the document.

•One of the major arguments for privatizing the toll roads was that the TCA could build them better and cheaper than Caltrans. But according to agency records, administrative costs alone for the San Joaquin Hills tollway will top $700 million over 38 years. The TCA agreed to pay Lockheed Martin more than $423 million over the same period just to collect tolls on the road.

•The politicians gave CPTC and the TCA "non-competition" guarantees (the Orange County edition of the LA Times reported this as a new fact in December—two and a half years after it was disclosed in the Weekly) that prohibit Caltrans from improving certain major public arteries for the next 40 years. Toll-road officials argue that their roads won't be financially successful unless the public freeways are constantly congested. Colleen Clark, chief financial officer at the TCA, arrogantly told The Bond Buyer in April 1998 that her agency is sure the public will eventually warm to the tolls because "they really have no choice" with mounting freeway congestion.

•Despite this catalog of disasters—and others the public may never learn about—TCA officials spent $24,000 to unsuccessfully lobby for a 50 percent bonus system for agency bureaucrats, who were already the highest-paid toll officials in the nation.

Despite the failures, most if not all of the county's politicians have hopped on the toll-road bandwagon. They're proceeding full speed on two new projects, both of which are likely to have the same disastrous environmental, economic and political consequences as their predecessors. Nevertheless, Assemblyman Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach) says, "Toll roads are the future." State Senator Bill Morrow (R-San Juan Capistrano) talks about the "positive success" of the roads. Even Orange County's Third District Supervisor Todd Spitzer (R-Brea), generally considered a government reformer, steadfastly maintains that tolls are a main solution to reduce congestion.

The proposed Foothill South toll extension—which would connect Coto de Caza to I-5 at San Clemente after cutting a swath through the 3,126-acre San Onofre State Beach Park near Camp Pendleton—demonstrates conclusively how wrong the politicians are. County supervisors, Caltrans bureaucrats and TCA officials all claim that a failure to build the new 16-mile, $900 million road would crush the region's transportation system by 2020. Ironically, the TCA told federal authorities that the Foothill tollway was needed for "avoidance and minimization of impact to the natural and urban environment."

Not everyone has swallowed that bizarre view. The well-organized citizens' protest group Stop the Toll Road Coalition formed in 1998 and successfully raised numerous questions about the merit of the road. The TCA reacted by budgeting more than $400,000 for local public relations. Time and again they have issued dire traffic projections. But one simple question unraveled their whole argument: Is the expected need for the new road contingent upon converting what is now largely undeveloped, agriculturally rated land into more residential and commercial properties? Oddly, neither TCA nor Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) officials knew the answer. A Caltrans spokesperson said that they had no idea what factors were used but noted that the traffic projections were calculated in 1996 by a professor at Cal State Fullerton. We contacted the school's Center for Demographic Research, where professor William Gayk said he based his projections on historic local growth activity—which assumed large-scale future development in South County. Instead of building a destructive toll road through a historic and environmentally sensitive state park, elected officials responsible for approving new developments could slow traffic increases by nixing the developers' plans to build out South County.

It's unlikely, however, that the developers will lose any time soon. They have a lock on Orange County politics. For years, it has been no secret that members of the Board of Supervisors are beholden to an elite circle of Newport Beach-based developers who generously fund their campaigns. To reduce the risk that a renegade politician could rise and thwart their control of the county's $3.8 billion annual government, the most powerful local agencies are controlled by only a handful of elected officials. Supervisors Spitzer and Tom Wilson, for example, also sit as key board members at the TCA and OCTA. This arrangement almost guarantees unanimous but not necessarily good policy-making among the three supposedly independent local public transportation agencies.

At this point, it's safe to say there are many things about Orange County's toll-road operations that remain puzzling. Perhaps most interesting is that local and state government officials continue to campaign for a private developer to build, operate and own a new toll road above the Santa Ana Riverbed. The proposed elevated road would give drivers willing to pay $5 each way a new route from I-5 near Disneyland to the San Diego Freeway in north Santa Ana. It would also give thousands of longtime local residents in Fountain Valley a depressingly close view of the highway from their back yards and jeopardize environmental health (see accompanying story).

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