Toll Road to Ruin
Last month, Orange County's bumbling Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) devised yet another new plan to solve its continual financial disaster woes. The government agency wants to change its identity. It hopes to become the Transportation Corridor System (TCS).
Oh, and one other minor detail: they want to spend an additional $4.7 billion in "speculative grade" debt for the 11-year-old Highway 73 Toll Road that slices through Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, Irvine and Laguna Beach on the way south to Interstate 5.
TCA chief financial officer Mary Lou Woods told reporters that going further into debt will "realize savings" for the agency. Comedy gold!
What will the new debt mean for OC motorists? Why, ever-escalating tolls, of course. And additional life for the TCA, a bureaucracy that was supposed to take the road public and go defunct in the 2020s, but will now stay in existence for at least four additional decades. Somebody's got to stay around to collect those tolls.
At the same April meeting, the agency decided its automated traffic counter isn't good enough. It gave a private consulting company a $330,000 contract to tell the agency what the numbers mean. Seven other firms walked away with contracts totaling $1.7 million.
The public board governing the TCA should skip the TCS name ruse and go straight to a more accurate name: Transportation Corridor Money Pit (TCMP).
In 1997, the Weekly predicted the road would be a financial nightmare while the TCA, local politicians such as Dana Rohrabacher and Chris Cox, the Los Angeles Times and The Orange County Register hailed the project as an international model. At one point, the Times put its advertising banners on all the toll booths as a sign of support. Three years later—after the TCA admitted massive financial woes—the Times and Register finally informed their readers.
The mainstream-media/political/corporate alliance that shilled for the 73—or San Joaquin Hills toll road—in the early days is one of the greatest frauds in county history. At one point, the 16-mile road was supposed to cost less than $500 million. If the TCA borrows yet more money from Wall Street investment banks, the final cost of the project will easily exceed $1 billion per mile.
Nobody's calling the 73 an international model nowadays.
In the '90s, the toll road was built with $3 billion in Wall Street debt and sold to the public as a way to decrease traffic congestion on the 405 and 5 interstates. It was a lie. The road was built at the request of Irvine Co. boss and political giant Donald Bren and his real-estate-development pals.
If the road has accomplished anything, it's this: it allowed Bren & Co. to greenlight dozens and dozens of residential and commercial projects they planned next to the passage. Massive amounts of new traffic from those developments quickly caused congestion on the road that was supposed to end congestion.
Coincidentally, I'm sure, Bren's net worth more than doubled to $8 billion after the toll road was built, according to Forbes.
Now, the same brain trust that sold us the 73 wants to build another 16-mile toll road in South County.
If officials at the TCA/TCS/TCMP continue their push for another publicly financed, privately owned road (Wall Street investment houses are the owners until they bleed the road dry), at least be honest. It won't be to alleviate traffic. It will be to build more cookie-cutter housing developments.
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