Highway Robbery - Newport Coast

Photo by Vu NguyenTake Irvine's Bonita Canyon Drive, turn south on Newport Coast Drive toward the Pacific Ocean, and enjoy the scenery up to the San Joaquin Hills toll road.

It's a dump.

The overgrown, weed-infested medians and roadsides are littered with soiled fast-food wrappers, dozens of beer bottles, bags of trash, sections of a month-old Orange County Register, cardboard boxes, cola cans and plastic cups, assorted Slurpee straws and gas station receipts, used and unused taco-sauce packets, handfuls of nails and bolts, a partially destroyed cooler top, a construction crew's abandoned paint bucket, two opened Progresso soup cans, and a hubcap.

Roadside litter and botanical neglect are commonplace throughout Orange County, particularly in middle- and low-income areas where residents have little political influence. But the wasteland on Newport Coast—home to some of the county's wealthiest residents—is uniquely baffling. Some might have even guessed that the Irvine Co.—builder of the new, affluent, private housing communities that rely on Newport Coast Drive—would have used its influence to ensure that government resources were poured into maintaining the thoroughfare. And of course they did.

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Five years ago, shell-shocked by bankruptcy, the Board of Supervisors dismantled countless services for the county's needy but quietly managed to find more than $550,000 in taxpayer funds to landscape and maintain (plant trees and flower seeds, irrigate, survey wildlife, and keep clean) this tiny half-mile section of road. What is even more amazing—especially considering the current unsightly condition of the road—is that $183,000 has been paid to one private contractor specifically to "maintain and monitor" the area for a five-year period that doesn't end until May 2002, according to county records. In fact, the county pays Les Card, one of the owners of LSA Associates, $200 per hour plus expenses for the job. It costs local taxpayers $85 per hour on average for 13 other LSA employees working on the "habitat project." Those fees do not include the $50 per hour LSA receives for each member of its temporary worker "field crew" that might work on cleaning up Newport Coast Drive.

County bureaucrats and politicians also agreed to pay the politically connected firm:

•$34,100 to attend unspecified road "maintenance meetings";

•more than $48,000 for various fuzzily named periodic reports;

•$53,600 for "monitoring" this section of the road; and

•$2,750 for faxing, mailing and copying.

All of those responsibilities apparently require an additional $26,140 in public funds for "project management."

Yet LSA—which helped build the San Joaquin Hills toll road and, at a cost of $2.6 million, produced the controversial pro-El Toro International Airport environmental-impact report for the county—has not been happy with the seemingly generous fee structure for the Newport Coast contract. In late July, they requested a special additional payment of $17,200. County staff agreed, and the five supervisors unanimously approved the payment without discussion as one of 72 agenda items ratified in a single vote. It was the sixth time in five years that the contract fee had been boosted for LSA. (Company officials did not respond to requests for an interview.)

Though the county agreement clearly enumerates "performance standards" for LSA pertaining to plant growth, it appears that not a single plant or tree has been rooted in the contract area. Nor is it clear how much the county has spent on plants for the road. Stan Vander Mey, a manager with the public facilities and resources department that oversees the project, told the Weeklyhe did not know the costs and couldn't think of any way to find out. (Vander Mey is one of the bureaucrats who recommended the increase in LSA pay in July.) A weeklong review of county records indicates that officials may have lost or failed to place the plant cost documents in the proper public-inspection files.

Newport Coast Drive has always been steeped in wild spending and mysterious bureaucratic practices. The road existed quietly for decades—until 1995, when, at the urging of the Irvine Co., it was seized without compensation by the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA), the quasi-government entity that privately manages local toll roads. The TCA built its tollway over the public road, and county officials approved the scheme—even though doing so required them to rebuild at taxpayers' expense the half-mile-long Newport Coast Extension. Total cost: $6 million. It was truly highway robbery. Outraged local citizens protested the deal, but then-state Attorney General Dan Lungren (a recipient of large Irvine Co. campaign contributions) formally sanctioned the privatization of the public road. As a result, today thousands of local residents who use the Newport Coast toll entrance and exit daily pay the TCA $784 annually.


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