For decades, proposals for toll roads have been under scrutiny in Orange County, California—and in recent years, so have the agencies responsible for them.
Plans to complete a stretch of the State Route (SR) 241 toll road, connecting the northern cities with Interstate 5 further south, have been particularly contentious.
Although a deal was struck in March seeming to provide a resolution to the decades-long battle over that stretch of road, the war has not come to an end.
San Clemente, a city at the heart of a previous SR 241 extension proposal, wants legally binding assurance that a toll road will never be built through it. Its representatives say it will not drop a lawsuit that’s been going for three years against the agencies responsible for the toll roads, the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA).
And lawmakers, including Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), continue to call for the disbanding of the TCA.
Critics of the TCA say they’re a waste of taxpayer money, are poorly run, and their work could be handled by other existing agencies.
Federal and state representatives have made multiple complaints about the agencies, and an Orange County Grand Jury investigation was underway until it was halted this summer due to COVID-19.
The complaints being investigated include financial mismanagement, unethical political practices, and violation of the legislation that formed the agencies.
TCA CEO Samuel Johnson told The Epoch Times the complaints are based on “misinformation. In some cases, it’s actually disinformation.”
For example, although the agencies are $4.5 billion in debt, he said it’s like borrowing money to purchase a house—it’s a normal and expected part of building the toll roads. It’s like having a mortgage on your house and making every payment on time; it doesn’t show fiscal irresponsibility.
TCA spokesperson Kim Mohr said that before the pandemic, the agencies were collecting about 300,000 tolls daily, with revenue up more than 11 percent compared to four years ago. The number of account holders has also more than doubled in that time.
Born With a Purpose
The TCA were formed in 1986 (they are two separate agencies formed at the same time to cover different parts of the region, operating jointly). They were established with the mandate to build multiple toll roads as a way to realize the overall plan for mobility in the county. Tolls were seen as a great way to fund that infrastructure development.
The TCA were to build the roads, pay off the incurred debt, then disband. The rough timeline was 30 years, according to the Grand Jury report published in June.
But more than 30 years later, the TCA need another 30 years to pay off their debt—Mohr confirmed that all debts are expected to be paid by 2053. And many say these agencies have lived beyond their useful lifespan.
U.S. Congressmembers representing districts in Orange County accused the agencies in September of going into “self-perpetuation” mode and “refinancing their debt to delay the pay-off date and eventual sunset of their operations.”
Though the Grand Jury didn’t complete its investigation, it did find improprieties, including what it deemed a lack of responsible oversight by TCA’s board of directors (composed of elected officials from 18 local cities and the county board of supervisors).
It also declared that “the missions leading to their founding have essentially been accomplished” and said the agencies should focus on paying off their debts and disbanding.
The last road TCA built was completed in 1998. But TCA says it still has meaningful work to do.
It’s currently working on connecting the SR 241 to the 91 Express Lanes in north Orange County, and widening parts of SR 73 and SR 241.
There’s also the matter of a route solving congestion and connectivity issues in the south of the county.
That’s what they’ve been embroiled in lawsuits over for decades, and it seems this year a project is finally moving forward.
Fight Over the SR 241 Extension Resolved?
In the early 2000s, TCA came up with six different routes, or “alignments,” to extend the SR 241 further south beyond its current end point at Oso Parkway in Mission Viejo. The goal was to connect it with the I-5, and part of the benefit was to facilitate access from Orange County’s northern cities to its southern beaches.
In 2006, they selected their preferred option, the Green Alignment, which would have bent around San Clemente.
It met with vehement opposition that led to a decade of litigation.
Environmental groups and others said it would damage environmental and cultural resources in San Onofre State Beach, as well as a local conservancy and other open-space lands.
That case was settled in 2016, with the TCA saying they would look at other options for the extension and that they would declare the contested areas “avoidance areas.” The opposing groups were happy, but that move earned TCA another enemy—San Clemente.
The city sued TCA the following year, saying that avoiding those areas opens a new set of problems.
The only viable alternative then was Alignment 14, it said, which included building through San Clemente—through lands the city said were similarly protected as conservancy areas. The city said the TCA’s 2016 settlement violated various planning laws on the city, county, and state level.
With the Green Alignment opposed, and now Alignment 14 as well, the TCA were stuck.
That is, until March this year, when they announced they would scrap Alignment 14 and simply extend Los Patrones Parkway (with untolled road) to solve the traffic issues in the region.
The county is to take the lead on that project, with the TCA playing a supporting role.
But San Clemente officials say the TCA left a loophole that could allow it to pick up the Alignment 14 plan again in the future.
They want a written guarantee, not just the TCA’s word, that the Alignment 14 plan is off the table for good. And their suspicions were raised when TCA opposed a state bill this summer that would have guaranteed Alignment 14’s death.
Senate Bill 1373 was proposed by Sen. Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel), but was shelved in July when it reached the Assembly Transportation Committee.
“That was a result of the TCA lobbying heavily to kill it,” San Clemente City Councilmember Gene James told The Epoch Times.
The TCA opposed it on the grounds that it could limit future planning. “Our concern is being able to keep our options open,” Ed Sachs, former TCA chair and Mission Viejo councilmember, told the Orange County Register.
Mission Viejo also opposed Bates’s bill. “What if another party to the existing agreement reneges, and traffic relief doesn’t come and all the traffic still remains to go through Mission Viejo?” the city’s mayor, Brian Goodell, told the Register.
So, with the possibility of Alignment 14 resurfacing, San Clemente’s councilmembers have voiced concerns in recent months. They’ve decided to persist in the lawsuit until the question of Alignment 14 is resolved, and have echoed the call for the TCA to disband.
San Clemente’s Grievance
Chris Duncan, a Democrat who recently won a four-year seat on the San Clemente City Council, told The Epoch Times: “That’s an organization that has outlived its purpose. It’s more than twice as far in debt as it was when it first started to build our two major toll roads, the 241 and the 73.
“I think it would be best for taxpayers and South Orange County if it wound down and went away, because while it still exists, we still continue to have our property taxes … affected by the development impact fees.”
James, a Republican recently reelected to serve a four-term on the city council, and Steven Knoblock, a Republican who won a two-year seat, both said it’s time for the TCA to go.
“They haven’t built a road in more than 20 years. That sounds like they’ve completed their mandate,” James said. “It needs to pay off its debt, take the tolls off the roads, and go out of business.”
James also sits on the board of directors for the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency (F/ETCA), one of the two agencies that make up the TCA, along with the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor Agency (SJHCA).
But their voices haven’t been enough to influence the TCA’s actions accordingly.
TCA Says Its Still Needed
The TCA’s Johnson said the need is still as strong today as it was 30 years ago for solving the county’s traffic congestion, and the tolls are still key in being able to bring in funds for the infrastructure.
“As our population, the number of jobs, and housing continues to grow in Orange County, the demands on our transportation system will also continue to grow,” Johnson said.
“We probably need to channel that wisdom from 30 years ago, because that same question lives on: ‘How do we pay for the costs to deliver and maintain our transportation system?’ … I don’t think putting our heads in the sand or doing the whole ostrich thing is the way to protect our future.”
Former Irvine Mayor Christina Shea, who left office on Dec. 8, chaired the F/ETCA. She told The Epoch Times she thinks getting rid of the TCA would be a bad idea.
Despite ongoing traffic woes, the toll roads have been “an asset and a benefit,” Shea said.
“People love the toll roads. … If we didn’t have the two toll roads in Orange County, we would have back-to-back, bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 5 and the 405. OK, it’s already that way, but it would be compounded 10 times worse.”
‘Time to Put the Sword Down’
Regarding the Alignment 14 opposed in San Clemente, Shea said that arose from public pressure for a faster route from cities in the north to the beach areas in the south.
“From Irvine, sometimes it would take us almost an hour on the weekend just to get down to San Clemente,” she said.
When Alignment 14 was scrapped, she was all in favor of giving San Clemente written assurance it was off the table.
“I did try as aggressively as I could to give them some promise that we would not continue looking at it in the future,” she said. She supported sending the city a memorandum of understanding on the matter.
“But I did not have support from the [rest of the TCA] board,” Shea said.
She said the TCA found Alignment 14 infeasible anyway, so she doesn’t see it being picked back up in the future. It wouldn’t have generated enough traffic—enough toll revenues—to pay for itself, she said.
“I understand their anger and their frustration,” she said of the San Clemente councilmembers, “but it’s time to put the sword down.”
She accused them of hiring a public relations firm to orchestrate a disinformation campaign smearing the TCA. That’s where allegations of fiscal mismanagement have come from, she said.
“They’ve tried to cast this wide net … and really unfairly because the agency is, I would say, fiscally very solid.”
Johnson also said, “TCA is financially strong, and this is indicated by the credit ratings we get from three nationally acclaimed firms from Wall Street that do this work.”
A Nov. 17 TCA press release noted an independent financial audit by Certified Public Accountants for fiscal year 2020.
“A clean audit is always the desired outcome, and I believe it speaks highly of management that this year’s result is a continuation of the agencies’ outstanding track record,” Tony Beall, chair of the TCA Joint Finance and Investment Committee, said in the press release. Beall is also mayor of Rancho Santa Margarita.
Shea did say that concerns about allegations of improper behavior from one of the board members are warranted. The Grand Jury’s June report had highlighted this issue, though it wasn’t able to see its investigation through to the end.
‘Tammany Hall’ Fashion Corruption
The Grand Jury’s report states that a TCA board of directors member acted favorably on a TCA contract where that member had personal political interest.
The report reads, “the Grand Jury finds it curious that over the same time frame, in an almost ‘Tammany Hall’ fashion, any elected official who opposed any action taken (especially those that might limit its scope of activity) by the TCA would at some point immediately thereafter in his or her re-election cycle find that hitherto unknown or from an unexpected quarter discover substantial opposition in the form of withdrawal of recommendations or creation of complaints or withdrawal of funding.”
However, the report stated, “because of the COVID-19 hiatus, the Grand Jury was unable to investigate these issues further.”
Shea said she observed these happenings from a single board member, whom she declined to name, though that person “fortunately” is no longer a member of the board. “I thought that was somewhat outrageous, but it happened,” she said.
Meanwhile, James has urged San Clemente City Council to write a letter to Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer requesting an investigation into the unnamed board member.
“The Grand Jury did not identify who that person was,” he said. “They ran out of time. That Grand Jury actually came to the end of its term. Now there’s a new Grand Jury.”
Call for Truce
Johnson, who has worked for 20 years in transportation, served as TCA’s interim CEO before officially taking the helm in September.
“It’s a challenging time,” he said. “My biggest challenge is countering the disinformation that’s out there, that’s become all too common in today’s age of social media.”
Johnson said it’s time for the City of San Clemente to “put the hatchets away” and drop its lawsuit.
The TCA recently spent an additional $600,000 on legal fees in its battle with San Clemente.
“I know San Clemente has some heartburn, but if they look at their neighbors, in neighboring cities, who all sit on this board, I think there are some perspectives to be had here,” he said.
“I’m big on consensus-building. We’re just figuring out how to have, I guess, civil discourse. As you can imagine, we’ve got different policymakers, elected officials, and sometimes there’s going to be disagreements, and that’s fine.
“But working through those disagreements is where the strength of an agency really shows. … With a board as diverse as ours, in terms of 18 member cities and three county supervisory districts, you can imagine that personalities play a role in that as well.”
San Clemente Councilmember Duncan said his opposition to the TCA is multifaceted. Aside from Alignment 14 and the alleged self-perpetuation of an inefficient agency, there’s the question of whether tolls should be required indefinitely.
Toll roads have become “essentially discriminatory against seniors, low-income folks, and families who don’t have the expendable income to pay that kind of money,” Duncan said.
A local commuter who preferred not to be named told The Epoch Times she pays about $400 per month to go from Corona to Irvine for work, even with a FasTrak account. Another commuter said he spends about $40 per month to take the roads only when he needs them to beat traffic.
“Perhaps it [the TCA] was well-intentioned in the beginning,” Duncan said, but the county doesn’t need any more toll roads. “People are going around them.”