7/16/2020Grand Jury Accuses California Toll Road Agency Of Mismanagement
Scathing Orange County grand jury report accuses California toll road agency of using motorists as a personal cash cow.
By Richard Diamond/Staff Reports
The agency in charge of several California toll roads exists primarily to perpetuate itself and enrich its management executives, a grand jury report released last month concluded. The Orange County grand jury opened an investigation into the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA), which is responsible for the SR-73, 133, 241 and 261 toll roads in Orange County. While the inquiry was incomplete as a number of interviews were canceled because of the Covid-19 virus scare, jurors nonetheless identified a general pattern of conduct at TCA.
"It is readily apparent that while complying with the state statutes, both Joint Powers Authorities have gone into a 'self-perpetuation' mode (i.e. the grand jury was repeatedly left with the impression that the question, 'What new project or network expansion can we find that will add a new goal for the agency?' was an underlying activity for TCA management and board members)," the report stated. "Projects are added, new ways to expand their authority are being sought, and some elected officials are profiting from their association with the agencies by attending an unusually large number of meetings. All of these activities come at a cost to both the residents of the county and the users of the roads..."
Instead of funding road improvements, tolls are being used to bankroll the constant need for new studies, plans and advertising campaigns for the toll road, with many of its executives enjoying salaries higher than those in comparable positions at the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).
"This activity is truly a 'cash cow' for some," the report stated. "The grand jury heard the comment, 'Three or four [TCA] meetings a month... that's a car payment.'"
In addition to charging tolls to motorists, the agency receives a constantly rising "impact fee" tax that is imposed on all new construction near a toll road. When first imposed in 1986, a typical single family home would be assessed a $1305 fee. Today, the fee is $5740. If the toll road's debt is retired as scheduled in 2053, these "fees" will have ballooned ten fold over their initial rate to $12,757. Because the agency is always restructuring its debt to delay repayment, motorists are set to pay three-and-a-half times the amount initially borrowed to repay the construction bonds, at the current rate.
State assemblyman Bill Brough (R-Dana Point) last week introduced a bill to formally audit TCA, but its chances for passage are slim given the legislature's response to bills that would have accelerated repayment of TCA construction bonds.
"The grand jury learned that supporters of both of these pieces of legislation believe that in their opinion, private entities and elected officials who financially benefit from the existence of the TCA lobbied quite extensively in Sacramento to block this legislation that would ultimately benefit the residents of Orange County," the report found. "These statements were backed with substantive documentation obtained by and provided to the grand jury."
Several board members told the grand jury that they believed the toll roads would never be toll free. A copy of the report is available in a 2.4mb PDF file at the source link below.