A Wreck

Toll-road history under reconstruction

For more than a decade, Stephen Burgard's editorial page at the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times has joined Newport Beach real-estate developers to tout the proposed international airport at El Toro. On Feb. 13, for example, Burgard—relying on numbers created by the pro-airport Orange County Business Council—declared one point in his "case" for an international airport was that it "would enhance global competitiveness and growth." He used that argument to call for the defeat of Measure F, the March 7 anti-airport initiative. After voters overwhelmingly supported the initiative, Burgard tried to spin the outcome in a positive way for pro-airport forces. He argued, laughably, that voters had rejected not the airport but the fact that one supervisor held the ceremonial board chairmanship for two consecutive terms.

"The extension in January of [Supervisor Chuck] Smith's tenure as board chairman now obviously was a terrible group decision," wrote a postelection-blue Burgard, who went on to concede ruefully that the "El Toro airport express train" had been "involved in quite an Election Day wreck."

Such historical revisionism suggests that the real wreck is the Times OC editorial page. While the home edition of the LA Times routinely rails against injustice, Burgard's page poses as environmentally friendly, independent and even liberal but regularly sides with the elitist Business Council and its primary benefactor, the Irvine Co. The contortions breed emasculated opinions that often support corporate special interests while couching stances with lame calls for "further study" or unspecified "sensible" solutions. Rarely does the faint-hearted Burgard unleash himself against the horde of villains—institutional or otherwise—who roam our local landscape.

One of those villains is the county's Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA), the bureaucracy running the county's three toll roads. But wait: on June 11, Burgard suggested he's always been on to the financially doomed toll roads: "it's never been a secret that ridership would be a problem" for the San Joaquin Hills toll road.

Say what?

For Times readers, that very fact had been a tightly held secret for nearly a decade. It was the Weekly that time and again outlined the pending toll-road ridership crisis. (See, for example, "Road to Ruin," May 16, 1997.) Not until the toll-road operators themselves publicly acknowledged earlier this year what has been painfully obvious since at least 1990 did the Times report the story. In fact, a review of 12 years' worth of Times editorials failed to turn up a single instance in which the paper had written a commentary predicting the dismally low road usage. On the contrary, the paper has repeatedly lent its journalistic credibility to the supposed economic viability of the quasi-private toll roads that are, and I use this term loosely, "managed" by the TCA.

Here's a brief sampling of how the Times OC editorial page mischaractrized a project that TCA chairman (and 3rd District supervisor) Todd Spitzer now concedes may require a massive taxpayer bailout:

March 10, 1990: "Clearly, the case for new roads and the idea of paying for them in part through tolls ought to have been sufficient to push this project over the top by now."

Jan. 14, 1992: "Toll roads [are] an attractive concept."

Aug. 4, 1996: "Early reports from the TCA on the first week of operation were encouraging."

April 6, 1997: "Toll roads are the way to go. [They are a] success."

The toll-road experiment proceeded for 4,000 days before Burgard and the Times were willing to acknowledge on the editorial page—and then only in passing—what any intelligent assessment proved a decade ago: the toll-road traffic projections were bogus from the beginning.

It would be tempting to suggest that the Times' reluctance to condemn the toll roads is a product of its recent and potentially compromising joint marketing agreement with the TCA (for a time in 1997, for example, Times banners hung on toll-collection booths). But the paper's support of El Toro International Airport and the toll-road agency is part of a century-old pattern at the Times. From its beginnings, it seems, the paper figured the short road to financial success was paved with flattering words about powerful people in the region's chambers of commerce. Burgard's editorial-page support of the two largest land-development projects in Orange County history is only the latest flowering of that obsequious strategy.

Nor, perhaps for different reasons, are Register readers any better-served. They too were in the dark about the roads that are supported by huge taxpayer subsidies but earn millions of dollars in annual profits for wealthy private investors. Both Reg editorial directors Cathy Taylor and Ken Grubbs, whom Taylor replaced in 1996, have been unable to resolve their gung-ho libertarian dogma with the ugly financial realities of the TCA. Weekly readers learned as early as 1997—in our first story on the topic—that the ridership numbers would never support the bloated multibillion-dollar Wall Street-inspired fiasco.

Burgard did not respond to our recent requests for comment. That is not surprising. In the past, he has attempted to stifle our criticism by angrily threatening a lawsuit. His case? The Weekly had undermined his professional credibility. That, of course, would have assumed he still had some.

 
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