By Assemblymember Bill Brough
Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) formed in 1986 as a joint powers authority (JPA) by the County and several cities following planning that began in the 1970s identifying the need for new highways. A series of laws were enacted subsequently that created the system.
In 1987, SB 1413 (Seymour) authorized toll roads in Orange County. In 1989, AB 680 (Seymour) authorized the State of California (Caltrans) to test the feasibility of building four privately funded transportation facilities. Language in AB 680 stated “the bill would authorize the department (Caltrans) to lease those facilities to the private entities for up to 35 years. The privately constructed facilities would at all times be state-owned.” In 1990, SB 1437 (Seymour) added fees collected pursuant to the subdivision map. The bills envisioned that only upon a finding that there is no other adequate funding available from federal, state or other sources, the JPA could toll the roads to pay off the then-$1 billion price tag, then turn the roads over to the people as free roads like Interstate 5.
The original concept has changed dramatically. When opened in the 1990s, the system cost was already up to about $2.4 billion without taxpayer money, actual initial costs of the roads were missed by some $3.2 billion, or about 400%. The current plan has extended debt and increased tolls—at least 12 times since 1996 to pay off the then-$4 billion in debt that is estimated to cost $11 billion under the current debt structure. TCA would have greater debt than the states of Montana, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and North and South Dakota.
The toll roads have been collecting tolls on the corridors since 1993 and 1996 and will continue to do so until 2053 and 2050, respectively—not the 35 years as originally planned. The system was created due to a lack of transportation funding. Now, Orange County residents pay four times for roads. We pay our normal taxes, Measure M2 (a county half-cent sales tax for roads), SB1 gas taxes (.12 cents on gas, .20 cents on diesel and increased registration fees), and we pay to drive the toll roads.
For the past two decades, the toll roads have been planning an extension to I-5 south of San Clemente and north of Camp Pendleton. The extension was repeatedly denied by the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, California Coastal Commission and by an appeal to the Bush Administration’s Department of Commerce in 2006. These denials ultimately led to TCA paying $28 million into a mitigation fund to settle with environmental organizations and in exchange for their forfeit of opposition. The settlement also removed the route supported by many of us from building any road.
Since the settlement, TCA has been planning a new route that conceptually passes through the private land of Rancho Mission Viejo, San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente, ultimately connecting to I-5. Additionally, TCA is planning to connect the 241 to State Route 91 Freeway in Corona. The problem is that the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), which manages I-5, and the Riverside County Transportation Corridor (RCTC), which manages SR 91, are not currently aligned with their efforts. Yet, TCA continues to spend development fees collected on these planning efforts. Rather than being a toll road operator, which should be their core mission, they have become a planning agency that is operating outside of their lane, so to speak.
In 2018, AB 382 was heard in the California Senate Transportation Committee. The theme that repeatedly came up by the committee chair was that there needed to be clear delineation as to who the transportation planning authority is in Orange County. The public utilities code is clear. The transportation planning authority in Orange County is OCTA. OCTA is the steward of Measure M2 that has done projects such as the Ortega Highway bridge replacement at I-5, off-ramp improvements and the carpool lane extension to Pico along I-5.
Affordability is a major issue in Orange County. It is very expensive to live here. Fees paid to the toll roads are high. New home construction includes a developer fee for single family homes from $4,126 to $5,797. The 14,000 or so homes being constructed by Rancho Mission Viejo will pay an estimated $130 million to TCA that is ultimately passed along to the new homeowners. Businesses get hit harder with fees ranging from $4.67 to $8.06 per square foot. All fees have an automatic 2.206% and 2.667% increase each July 1. These fees are all paid by us through our homes and business—and have been for years—for a road, in my opinion, that will never be built.
My bill, AB 1273, removes TCA’s planning authority and stops additional debt. The toll road can still plan by going through OCTA, the county planning authority. The toll roads were built and continue to operate on the backs of homeowners, business fees and toll collection. AB 1273 will return The Toll Roads to its core mission as a toll road operator, pay off the bonds, and turn the roads over to the people as free, which was the original intent.
Bill Brough is the California Assemblymember for the 73rd district, which includes San Juan Capistrano. He was elected in 2014, 2016 and 2018.