The 15-mile San Joaquin Hills tollway to run from Newport Beach to San Juan Capistrano and scheduled for construction next year, could run into trouble without state funds or if construction costs rise too rapidly, a consultant reported Thursday.
"The project is still financially viable--though only marginally," Fieldman, Rolapp & Associates of Irvine states in a report to the Orange County Transportation Corridor Agencies. "State funding, though minimal, is an integral part of the financing plan which, even with that support, is only marginally feasible."
Banks poised to help finance the project have insisted that the state come up with $48.5 million previously committed in principle by the California Transportation Commission. But that money is now in jeopardy.
The state is out of money for new highway construction, and a recent Los Angeles Times Poll found that 49% of voters surveyed statewide oppose a ballot measure that would increase the state gasoline tax and raise state spending limits to finance a major transportation improvement program. About 36% of the respondents favor the measure; 15% said they were undecided.
"Unless Prop. 111 passes, we'll have to rethink everything we're doing around here," said William C. Woollett Jr., executive director of the corridor agencies, which plan to build three tollways in eastern and southern areas of the county.
The agencies' staff, however, said the Fieldman, Rolapp report is somewhat misleading. The report, agency officials said, used on toll-revenue assumptions based on 2-year-old traffic studies while taking into account a recent update of cost estimates from $585 million to $601 million.
"It's not really marginal," corridor agencies spokeswoman Donna Stubbs said.
Walter Kreutzen, the agencies' financial chief, said that banks' refusal to issue letters of credit would not doom the project. Kreutzen said other financial arrangements such as bond anticipation notes can be made.
"We have to work out alternatives," he said. "It's not a make-or-break situation."
Former Orange County Supervisor Bruce Nestande, vice chairman of the California Transportation Commission, said he considers the Fieldman, Rolapp report an update rather than the final word.
Nestande said it would be unfortunate if state funding now became the critical factor for the project.
The San Joaquin Hills tollway will be an extension of the Corona del Mar Freeway, running from Newport Beach through Laguna Hills to the San Diego Freeway in San Juan Capistrano.