That Good-For-Nothing Toll Road

Last week the LA Times wrote a piece about OCTA's South Orange County Major Investment Study. Its results directly contradict the Transportation Corridor Agencies' claims that its planned Foothill South (241) Toll Road extension would relieve traffic in south Orange County. Steve Lowery cites the new study in this week's Diary of a Mad County:

The study, titled “We Are So Screwed: Seriously, Royally Screwed” says that if the toll road is built, traffic will be alleviated on the Santa Ana Freeway to the point of being “severely congested” by the year 2030, which would be about the year the toll road would open, what with the expected work delays, cost overruns, mob extortion and unearthing of dinosaur/Native American/guy who wouldn't pay the mob bones.

He's right—maybe not about the mob, but certainly about work delays and cost overruns. The implications of the study (which, incidentally, this blog discussed with the study's instigator, Cassie DeYoung, about a month ago) are simply this: the toll roads are not a form of traffic relief. If anything, the 241 toll road will only serve as a traffic alternative, while functioning to help make traffic worse. DeYoung put it best:

…traffic in Orange County will increase by one thousand percent on the streets and roads, and over two hundred percent on the I-5 South—with the fully completed 241 extension, given the alignment they came up with. There would be virtually no traffic on the 241.

While traffic on both the 5 freeway and nearby arterials crawls to a halt, the rich and careless will be able to cruise down a traffic-free toll road while the rest of the county thinks back to a time when cars actually moved on the road. As far as work delays are concerned, well, let's just say construction was initially scheduled to begin in 1997; now they're hoping for 2008. So we're already looking at a decade plus one.

And cost overruns? I'm glad you asked. Since last year the TCA has claimed the Foothill-South extension will cost $875 Million to construct. But in the last two years the cost of highway construction material has skyrocketed.

Recently Fitch Ratings, one of several agencies which evaluates the TCA's bonds, affirmed the Foothill/Eastern TCA's bond rating at BBB. Still, their evaluation assumes a “high likelihood of future construction increases.” According to Fitch spokesman Mike McDermott, “We've seen in the last couple of years dramatic increases in production costs for projects like this. In the southeast and parts of the west costs have gone up dramatically – 40, 50, 60 percent.”

What's $875 Million plus 50 percent? A healthy $1.3 Billion – just a million over the TCA's minimum estimate for the cost of widening the I-5, an option they admit will do a better job of relieving traffic but which they claim is too expensive compared to the 241 extension.

One final note–according to the Times story, “OCTA spokesman Michael Litschi said he did not want to comment on which study might be more valid.” Well, we called Litschi up and he said those words never crossed his lips. “I don't even think they asked me the question,” he said. “They paraphrased me, so I guess that's accurate.” His actual opinion is that the studies can't really be compared because they were calculated in different ways. “For one thing, TCA's projections are looking at 2025 and ours are looking at 2030,” says Litchi. Any other differences? “The demographic data they use is, I believe, older, so I have been told.”

The Transportation Corridor Agencies have yet to respond to a request for a comment.

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