SUPPORT THIS INDEPENDENT JOURNALISM
The article you’re about to read is from our reporters doing their important work — investigating, researching, and writing their stories. We want to provide informative and inspirational stories that connect you to the people, issues and opportunities within our community. Journalism requires lots of resources. Today, our business model has been interrupted by the pandemic; the vast majority of our advertisers’ businesses have been impacted. That’s why The Capistrano Dispatch is now turning to you for financial support. Learn more about our new Insider’s program here. Thank you.
By Shawn Raymundo
The city of San Clemente may be looking to take the nearest exit from the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA), as the city council next week is slated to take up discussions on how to proceed in withdrawing from the joint powers authority (JPA) that formed the toll road operators.
When the council meets on April 6, it will consider acting on a handful of toll road-related matters, including the proposal to remove San Clemente as a TCA member—an idea that officials on the dais believe could avert the 241 Toll Road from ever extending through town.
“The time has come for the lunacy to end. We must move away from the TCA-imposed drama and angst,” Mayor Pro Tem Gene James said during a special council meeting on March 23. “It’s not good for the TCA’s stated mission of South County mobility, and it’s not good for the city of San Clemente.”
The proposed discussion comes after the TCA Boards of Directors voted to oppose Sen. Patricia Bates’ pair of measures unless amended. The bills, if passed and enacted, would have the 241 permanently end at Oso Parkway and provide further protection from development within the city’s open space.
That vote has since stoked further distrust in the TCA, locally, and prompted renewed fears among councilmembers who believe the agencies could one day attempt to convert an extended Los Patrones Parkway—a free arterial thoroughfare—into a toll road connecting to Interstate 5 via San Clemente.
Tony Beall, mayor of Rancho Santa Margarita and a member on the Foothill/Eastern TCA board, argued against those fears, stating that anyone who’s suggesting the TCA is plotting and planning future road construction through San Clemente is spreading misinformation.
“The TCA is not planning or plotting future road construction in the city of San Clemente,” Beall emphatically said on Monday, March 29. He noted that the TCA boards voted to oppose Bates’ bills, because “they are bad transportation policy; it’s not because we have a secret plot. It’s because they’re poorly drafted transportation policies.”
James, who sits on the San Joaquin Hills TCA board, explained to SC Times last week that these matters are being brought up because of “my lack of trust with the TCA and my concern that this is a Trojan horse—that the TCA is just coming closer and closer to San Clemente.”
Touching on the suspicion that the TCA still has plans to complete its southern alignment of the 241, Mayor Kathy Ward said on Tuesday, March 30, it’s the only stakeholder agency that doesn’t want to eliminate any potential need for a 241 extension.
“If there is no future, why stay in (the TCA) and agree to leave yourself open to everything they want to cook up to do and morph themselves in projects that’s not in our joint powers agreement?” said Ward, the city’s representative on the Foothill/Eastern TCA board.
In response to the potential vote, the TCA said that it wouldn’t weigh in on the matter, other than to say it respects the city’s rights to discuss such action.
“We do think it would be unfortunate for San Clemente to give up its voice on mobility issues affecting South Orange County, in which TCA is a committed partner,” it said an emailed statement on Wednesday, March 31.
The council convened a special meeting on March 23 to address the ongoing concerns with the toll road and provide a report on a stakeholders’ meeting that was expected to have taken place beforehand.
The stakeholders’ meeting, which hadn’t yet occurred by March 23, was to include officials from the city, TCA, Orange County Transportation Authority and Rancho Mission Viejo. It was intended, as Ward previously explained, to iron out a solution on any toll road extension.
Ward said this week that the stakeholders’ meeting is scheduled for April 6, prior to when the council will meet. At that time, the stakeholders will discuss how to come to a consensus on moving forward cooperatively.
“That’s the thing—we do a have a cooperative agreement where we’ve all agreed to advance Los Patrones,” Ward explained. “It’s just one person in the entire county that we’re hearing different from that doesn’t agree with what we’ve done, and that’s the TCA. They keep talking about a possible toll road through the city in the future, if a future board decides to do it again.”
In March 2020, the Foothill/Eastern TCA Board voted to pursue the extension of Los Patrones as an untolled route that would extend further south from Cow Camp Road in Rancho Mission Viejo and end roughly 700 feet inside the northern city limits on Avenida La Pata.
The vote, which Beall said he believed should have alleviated the “distrust and anxiety that some members of San Clemente felt,” was based on studies and analyses that found proposed toll road routes to be unnecessary.
Beall further noted that extending Los Patrones was the preferred option based on the goal of “achieving the greatest amount of traffic mobility enhancement with the least amount of public opposition.”
“The study showed no additional roadway through the city of San Clemente was foreseeable at all,” he said.
At last week’s special meeting, though, the city presented a nearly 8½-minute video outlining the city’s history and timeline battling the toll road. In it, the city used audio of statements Beall made related to Bates’ bills during two previous TCA meetings.
Last May, Beall had stated that while he didn’t expect the need for further traffic analysis in “our lifetime,” future representatives and TCA board members may determine that additional traffic relief studies are necessary “that might necessitate further extension of the roadway.”
And this past February, he criticized Bates for misinterpreting the TCA’s March 2020 vote and repeating “a false narrative” that her measure to have the 241 end at Oso Parkway would “codify the actions that this agency took.”
“We said that during our lifetimes, it’s expected that it wouldn’t go beyond that, but that we were going to leave—because we don’t have a perfect crystal ball—decisions to be made in the future, about mobility and transportation needs, to be made by various members of the board of the agencies at that time, facing whatever those current circumstances might be in the future,” he said.
Beall on Monday reiterated those comments, stressing that mobility and transportation problems could occur in the future, and without a “crystal ball” handy, it’ll be up to the elected representatives of stakeholder agencies, such as the TCA, to decide how best to proceed.
“Future mobility decisions, responding to future traffic problems that are completely unknown problems, need to be made by future board members of all local agencies, including the TCA,” he said.
Asked whether the TCA should be considering mobility problems in the future if its mandate is to pay off its debt and convert the toll roads into free highways, Beall said he was referring to all agencies that deal with traffic issues.
“Those agencies will be responding for generations,” he said.
As far as any consideration of extending the toll road, Beall said, “We’re done. Period … there’s no secret plan to build a toll road through the city of San Clemente.”
Ward on Tuesday remained critical of Beall’s previous comments on leaving such road planning decisions to future boards, calling it an example of “double-talk”—“they say they’re done when you want to stop them … but then they say, we don’t have a crystal ball.”
“That’s why we need to decide whether we want to stay in an agency that can’t give a straight answer,” Ward said.
The latest discussions on the toll road stem from Sen. Bates’ two bills currently making their way through the state legislature.
The first, SB 760, proposes to amend the Streets and Highways Code to state that the 241 end at Oso Parkway, east of Mission Viejo. The Highways Code currently states that “Route 241 is from Route 5 south of San Clemente to Route 91 in the City of Anaheim.”
SB 760 mirrors Bates’ previous measure, SB 1373, which had passed the State Senate last year, but died in the State Assembly, as lawmakers were only considering legislation on COVID-19 recovery for the remainder of the session.
Her second bill, SB 761, looks to prohibit any road planning agency from constructing, funding and operating any development of a thoroughfare on San Clemente land deemed as open space or a conservation easement.
Ward called both measures important, adding that if Bates, who has experience as a county board supervisor and a TCA board member, thinks these bills should be enacted, then that “carries a lot of weight. She’s very knowledgeable about this subject.”
During the TCA Boards’ discussion on the bills, Orange County Board Supervisor Lisa Bartlett emphasized that Los Patrones will remain a county-owned arterial road. She also raised the concern that the bills would take away local control.
“We don’t necessarily need to be legislated by Sacramento. We can resolve things on our own at the local level,” said Bartlett, who had proposed the stakeholders meeting scheduled for next week. “We’ve got great local elected officials, we’ve got the county and stakeholders, OCTA, The Ranch, Caltrans and everyone who can work together to resolve things at the local level.”
Reiterating that point on Monday, Beall said the measures are “unnecessary,” as the studies that were already conducted show there’s no need for a toll road in San Clemente. “We’re not planning to put a road in the city of San Clemente,” he said, echoing his earlier statements. “There is no need to, therefore, have state statutes weighing in on what is already been completed. This is a local issue.”
Beall also called the measures “divisive,” creating more “controversy, mistrust and division when none are warranted.”
“We’re not doing anything,” he stressed. “It’s really bad, because it attempts to carve out San Clemente from any participation in solving future unknown traffic problems in the region.”
Both TCA boards voted to oppose the bills unless amended, as members intend to meet with Bates to discuss possible changes.
“At this time, neither the Boards nor staff have any conceptual ideas on how the bills could be amended but are deeply committed to eliminating the need for Sacramento legislation through a South Orange County-led resolution,” the TCA said in an email.
In addition to the discussion on leaving the JPA, Councilmember James last week also proposed a plan to withhold the development impact fees (DIF) that city residents and developers pay to the TCA.
Since its inception in 1987, the TCA has collected fees from property owners of new developments built within the cities and unincorporated areas that benefit from the toll roads.
As of the end of 2020, the city’s total contribution in impact fees to the TCA amounted to just shy of $54.76 million—about 7% of the $765.74 million the toll road agencies had collected, according to DIF data that the city presented last week.
San Clemente’s fees far exceed that of other South County cities such as the Rancho Santa Margarita, Dana Point, Mission Viejo, San Juan Capistrano and Aliso Viejo. Only the County of Orange and the cities of Irvine and Lake Forest have paid more.
The city has argued that its residents haven’t benefited from the toll roads, because the southern alignment of the 241 was never built. Last September, the council voted to notify the TCA that it breached its JPA agreement by eliminating the road alignment in “San Clemente’s area of benefit without even studying commensurate reduction in San Clemente DIFs.”
The DIFs, the TCA explained, pool money from member cities to fund transportation infrastructure in the region. Each member city, including San Clemente, voted to impose the fees on new developments “because they understood the regional nature of transportation needed to support their growing communities.”
“The roads constructed today benefit all member agencies, including the City of San Clemente, and this will continue to be true for all future developments within the designated areas of benefit,” the TCA said in its email.
The toll road operators further explained that the amount of money a city has contributed is tied to the length of time a city has been a member, as well as the development that has and will occur.
“(Rancho Santa Margarita) did not join the JPA until many years after San Clemente, and a portion of the development in RSM occurred when it was unincorporated County land, so the fees would have been collected by the County,” the TCA explained. “San Clemente experienced significant growth and created the associated demands on the regional transportation system after it joined the JPA.”
Ward explained that should the council vote to move forward next week, it would mark the next step in the process of challenging the fees that started last summer.
By addressing those matters based on the suspicion that the TCA will use Los Patrones as a “Trojan horse” to extend the 241, the city’s agreement to work cooperatively with the county and Rancho Mission Viejo on the planning of the thoroughfare could be in jeopardy of collapsing.
The city council next week will also consider rescinding its recognition of Los Patrones in the General Plan. Discussion was scheduled to happen at last week’s meeting, but at Ward’s request, it was tabled until the April 6 meeting.
At the end of last year, the council requested a seat at the table when it came to the planning and continued development of the parkway, which currently begins at Oso Parkway and travels through RMV, ending at Cow Camp Road.
The council got its wish in mid-December, when it agreed to work cooperatively with the County of Orange and RMV (also known as The Ranch), with the caveat that all parties acknowledged that Los Patrones will not include considerations to develop the controversial 241 extension.
As part of that agreement, councilmembers in February voted unanimously in favor of amending the city’s General Plan to recognize Los Patrones in the city’s roads map.
Prior to the March 23 meeting, James had said approval by the council to rescind the General Plan amendment “would put an end to any agreements we have” and would likely make it difficult for the county to secure M2 grant funding for the project.
While still in the concept phase, the project to extend the parkway as a free arterial route is currently estimated to cost about $240 million, OC Public Works had explained to the council this past February.
The council’s vote to add Los Patrones in the General Plan was the last piece of the puzzle needed to qualify for an M2 grant that would foot the bill for the project’s environmental document, as the OCTA requires the county’s and city’s General Plans to be consistent.
“We understand the City has some concerns and are working to address them. The County’s commitment remains the same—to operate LPPE as a free County arterial in conformance with the recent addition of LPPE as an arterial to the OCTA Master Plan of Arterial Highways,” Nicole Walsh, senior assistant county counsel, said in an email this week.
James had also called out The Ranch at last week’s meeting to state the city was still waiting on its “so-called friends” to issue a letter in support of Bates’ bills.
On Tuesday, Mike Balsamo, senior vice president of governmental relations for RMV, said that while The Ranch is hopeful the planning expectations between all the stakeholder agencies get settled soon, it wouldn’t “pick sides in these issues, which are, understandably, emotionally charged.”
“We have made clear in the past, we do not support a toll road dividing San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano or Mission Viejo,” Balsamo said in an email. “However, we also have a long-standing relationship with and investment in TCA and support the combined efforts to develop real-world solutions for South County mobility.”
During the council’s mid-February meeting, when members approved the General Plan amendment, both county and Ranch officials provided San Clemente with assurances that converting an arterial highway into a toll road would be difficult based on the specifications of the two road styles and the legal hurdles that would ensue.
However, despite those assurances, James said he remains “skeptical” on the matter. From the dais last week, he slammed the TCA, claiming it was “unethical” of the agencies to “threaten San Clemente with a toll road.”
“I have come to the conclusion that our goals and objectives are merely incompatible with each other,” he said. “That said, if over the next two weeks, we can find common ground through meaningful discussions … and be afforded the respect that the city of San Clemente deserves from the TCA, possibly we can avoid such confrontation.”
During the upcoming council meeting the council is expected to hear from the city attorney and staff on what the next steps would be in initiating the withdrawal from TCA.
Asked about the city’s chances of successfully exiting, Ward said that the chances of fighting it are good “because there’s proof that (the toll road is) not needed.”
“At this point, you have to decide if you’re going to stay with a failed agency or get out,” Ward said.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.