Grand Jury Releases Scathing OC Tollways Report

Ashley Ludwig

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, CA — An Orange County Grand Jury released a critical report of the agency overseeing the county's toll roads, Monday. The primary question asked is why the Toll Road agency has not yet paid off its debt. The Grand Jury speculated on a potential "political payback" of its critics.

The Transportation Corridor Agencies accused the grand jury of "bias" and said the report "is riddled with inaccuracies."

The grand jury concluded in its report that the OCTA agency "has completely fulfilled its original mandate to plan, finance and build (state Route 73), yet it continues to involve itself in future planning efforts, some of which are probably outside the purview with its charter."
The agency has also "fulfilled the bulk of its original mandate to plan, finance, and build (state Routes 133, 241, and 261)," according to the grand jury.

A connector from Route 91 to Route 241 and the "termination of the link between (Route 241) and (Interstate 5) remain to be completed," according to the grand jury's report.

The agency is still involved in other projects such as a high-occupancy vehicle lane on Interstate 5, "toll road enhancements, bike lanes, landscape maintenance, which may be considered beyond i ts original and currently legislated mandate."

The grand jury concluded that aside from repaying its debts, there's "little if anything" the agency could do that isn't already being done by the Orange County Transportation Authority or Caltrans.

The agency "employs political and public relations consultants as a promotional tool to help broaden its scope of activities (to include advertising aimed at improving its public image) that would extend beyond its legislated boundary limits," the grand jury report said.

According to the report, the TCA's planning is performed by consultants and TCA staff, "who have a financial interest in seeing the TCA continue beyond its original mandate." The grand jury reported that much of this "out of scope" work takes place "out of view of many of the TCA board members" and the public eye, and "creates a conflict of interest issue," the grand jury report said.

"Elected officials who have voiced opposition to the TCA have been subjected to negative information campaigns by TCA proponents," according to the grand jury.

The grand jury recommended that the agency "consider refraining from further project planning and construction so it can focus its entire efforts on paying off the bonds and sun-setting its operations."

The agency should also scale back its contracts with outside public relations firms to save money, the grand jury recommended.

Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who serves on the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor Agency, manages the 73 Toll Road, told City News Service, "I think there are a lot of inaccuracies in the grand jury report that need to be corrected."

As for the notion that the agency should be "winding down," Bartlett said that the toll roads most likely will never be free and that it is a fallacy that TSA should be going out of business.
"The state of California is not going to allow for these roads to be free because they have to be maintained," Bartlett said. She acknowledged that the increase in the gas tax was done to pay for road projects.

The most significant example to date is the decline in traffic due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That event has had a substantial impact on the toll roads as commuters opt for the freeways with less traffic congestion as more people work from home, Bartlett said.

"Revenues are down quite a bit— 40 percent to 50 percent," Bartlett said. "It's pretty significantly down —almost 75 percent at one point."

Bartlett also said the agency had saved millions restructuring its original debt with lower interest rates over the years.

"They don't take on any new debt, they just refinance at a lower interest rate," Bartlett said. "It's not like they're taking on additional bonding capacity."

The agency issued a news release declaring that though the report "contains incomplete and inaccurate information," it also concluded that there was "no evidence of fiscal mismanagement by TCA."

The grand jury report "contains outdated information." According to a TCA spokesperson, the grand jury neglected to address that TCA is responsible for the operations of the most extensive toll roads in California. TCA serves nearly two million toll road drivers and processes more than 100 million tolls last year, TCA refuted the report in a statement.
The agency recently adopted a fiscal year budget that reduces spending by 51 percent.
The agency said it appeared much of the report's conclusions were driven by three people who requested the grand jury inquiry.

The agency denied it is "nefariously working to develop toll lanes on Interstate 5, seeking projects beyond its legislative authority or attempting to extend bond retirement dates."

City News Service, Patch Editor Ashley Ludwig contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared on the San Juan Capistrano Patch