An Orange County grand jury report released Monday critical of the agency overseeing the county’s toll roads, questioning why it hasn’t finished paying off its debt and speculating about 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 that the 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,” according to the report.
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.
Only 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.
The grand jury also said 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 its 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.
“Recently, much of the planning is being performed by consultants and TCA staff, who have a financial interest in seeing the TCA continue beyond its original mandate, and out of view of many of the TCA board members and the public thus creating 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 “should 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, which 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, “toll roads are probably not going to be free, so this fallacy of the 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 acknowledged that the increase in gas tax was done to pay for road projects, for example.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant 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% to 50%,” Bartlett said. “It’s pretty significantly down — almost 75% at one point.”
Bartlett also said the agency has 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 and neglected to address the fact that TCA is responsible for the operations of the largest network of toll roads in the state serving nearly two million accountholders and processing more than 100 million tolls last year,” the agency said in the news release.
The agency recently adopted a fiscal year budget that reduces spending by 51%.
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.”
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