San Clemente Moves Toward Leaving Toll Road Agency

April 13, 2021 Updated: April 14, 2021

San Clemente is preparing to withdraw from the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) in the midst of an ongoing three year-lawsuit over disagreements about a toll road built in the city.

City council took its first step April 6, voting 4-1 to leave the joint powers authority (JPA) that forms the TCA. The split could come as a result of a perceived lack of representation on the board, and disagreements about building a toll road in San Clemente.

“It’s time for someone to say that this is over,” Mayor Kathleen Ward said during the meeting.

Council also moved to confirm with the TCA that the city has no financial commitment to the collection of TCA fees and to waive a 120-day requirement of notice for San Clemente’s withdrawal during its council meeting. This would allow them to leave the board as early as July 1.

“We’re treated as second class citizens on the TCA board,” Mayor Pro Tem Gene James told council during the meeting.

James said that the city has contributed $55 million to TCA, while Rancho Santa Margarita has contributed $1.4 million, and that both him and Ward have been prevented from sitting on a committee.

“The grand jury last year reported that really the TCA board doesn’t make decisions,” he said. “Decisions are made in committee.”

An Orange County Grand Jury report published last June said the TCA’s “missions leading to their founding have essentially been accomplished” and said the agencies should focus on paying off their debts and disbanding.

“They haven’t built a road in more than 20 years. That sounds like they’ve completed their mandate,” James told The Epoch Times in December. “It needs to pay off its debt, take the tolls off the roads, and go out of business.”

The TCA’s board of directors is composed of elected officials from 18 local cities and the Orange County Board of Supervisors. The two agencies in the TCA are comprised of the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency and the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor Agency.

James and Ward sit on the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency board, which James said is in name only, as the city’s voices haven’t been enough to influence the TCA’s actions.

He said in some cases San Clemente’s representatives are outvoted 20 to 2 on the TCA board.

“I enthusiastically think that withdrawing from the TCA, beginning that process tonight, is a great thing for the city.”

Ward said San Clemente doesn’t need a toll road, and thus doesn’t need to be part of the TCA.

“If we do stay in, it’s pretty much agreeing that there’s still more to be done, and that we’re a willing participant in their decisions,” she said. “I think that what has happened in the last seven years, certainly, we have not been a willing participant in what has happened.

“I’m not concerned about not having a seat at the table, because I feel like San Clemente just doesn’t have one.”

One concern from the council was TCA’s general fiscal management, as the agencies are $4.5 billion in debt.

TCA chief executive Samuel Johnson told The Epoch Times in December that although the agencies are in debt, 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, he 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,” he said.

“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.

“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.”

Another concern were the development fees imposed by the TCA on San Clemente’s taxpayers following its decision not to build a toll road.

Councilmember Chris Duncan told The Epoch Times in December, “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.”

San Clemente’s departure from the TCA would mean the TCA would not be able to collect developer fees for future construction from the city’s residents.

The dispute started in 2016 when the TCA looked for ways to resolve traffic congestion in southern Orange County and decided upon a SR241 extension, called Alignment 14, which would extend through San Clemente.

The city previously opposed the project because the road would be built on protected conservancy areas. The TCA agreed to disband the project.

However, San Clemente officials say the TCA left a loophole that could allow the TCA to resume the project in the future.

City officials wanted a written guarantee that the project would be disbanded, not just TCA’s word, and launched a lawsuit against the TCA in 2017.

Senate Bill 1373, proposed by Sen. Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) would have guaranteed Alignment 14’s death. However, the TCA opposed the bill.

Councilmember Laura Ferguson, the only dissenting vote, said she was concerned that the city should maintain their current relationship with the TCA in order to “monitor and protect our community, open space, businesses, and the residents.”

“We need a voice,” Ferguson said. “Without a voice, we’re silenced.”