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Ramp Fares for Tollway Would Rise Starting July

On the underused San Joaquin Hills route, rates at all 5 automated entrances would go up, and some would double.

May 27, 2000|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Drivers paying tolls at coin-operated onramps to the San Joaquin Hills Toll Road will see their fares as much as double in July if a proposal by county officials is approved.

The toll hikes would be the first for all five of the tollway's coin-operated ramps, which differ from the central, rampless plaza where employees take the tolls and where the rate has gone up already.

The proposed onramp toll hikes are part of a plan unveiled Friday to raise revenue on the financially troubled 15-mile tollway. County toll road board members will consider the plan next week and a vote is likely in early June.

"Nobody likes to see prices go up," said Mike Stockstill, spokesman for the Transportation Corridor Agencies, the public agency that built and operates the county's 52 miles of toll roads. "But we have to run this thing as a business. We have financial obligations that we must meet and we have to look at our revenue opportunities to do that."

Boosting rates at the five onramps could generate an extra $2.3 million to $4 million a year, according to the proposal. For example, drivers using the Newport Coast Drive onramp would pay $1 instead of 50 cents; those using the Bonita Canyon Drive onramp would see their toll jump from a quarter to 50 cents.

The $2.25 toll collected at the main plaza for travel along the entire tollway was bumped from $2 in 1998 and wouldn't change for now. But the onramp toll hikes would be the first phase of a long-range plan to bring "value pricing" to all county toll roads--the San Joaquin Hills, the Foothill and the Eastern--by July 2001.

A "value pricing" system, similar to one on the privately operated 91 Express Lanes, works like long distance phone rates, which are higher during peak-use times.

The push to raise tolls on the San Joaquin Hills route comes four months after major Wall Street bond rating agencies expressed concern about the road's financial outlook. This week, one of those agencies, Fitch IBCA, issued a pessimistic report on newer toll facilities, such as the ones in Orange County, saying bond ratings on such roads are likely to remain low for some time.

Orange County's three toll roads were built with more than $3 billion raised through the sale of bonds to private investors in a public-private partnership allowed by state legislators eager to find new sources of money for road building. That debt was to be repaid through the collection of tolls and fees from developers who benefit from the road. Once the bonds are paid off, the roads are slated to be turned into freeways.

In February, the Transportation Corridor Agencies took the unusual step of setting aside a reserve of nearly $40 million--largely from its share of the Orange County bankruptcy settlement--to guarantee payment of the debt on the San Joaquin Hills Toll Road through 2007.

Those funds were meant to shore up the road's finances and keep the investment-grade rating for its bonds, in light of a nearly 20% shortfall in traffic compared with projections.

Bond analysts earlier this year suggested that a 25-cent increase in the San Joaquin Hills tolls would be a good way to start raising revenue. County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, chairman of the San Joaquin Hills board, said at that time that any unscheduled toll hike should be considered only as a last resort.

The plan released Friday would significantly move up a later timetable for toll hikes on the ramps. The Bonita Canyon Drive toll, for instance, was not supposed to be 50 cents until 2011.

On Friday, Spitzer said he wasn't happy about the proposed toll hikes but said a tight time frame for generating more money from the road made them necessary.

"We have to increase revenue in the next five years by 80%," he said. "If we don't take these dramatic steps, we will never get to that goal."

Spitzer said he now has serious doubts whether toll roads can work at all in Orange County.

"I think toll roads, especially the San Joaquin Hills model, are not working," said Spitzer, who now says the state Legislature should buy them out.

"It's our constituents that are having to reach into their pockets even more, but we have an obligation to pay off this debt."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

A Richer Road?

Current rates for the San Joaquin Hills Toll Road and higher rates proposed starting July:

*--*

Ramp Current Toll Proposed Toll* Bonita Canyon Drive $0.25 $0.50 Newport Coast Drive $0.50 $1.00 El Toro Road $1.00 $1.50 Aliso Creek Road $0.75 $1.25 La Paz Road $0.50 $0.75

*--*

* Scheduled for July 200

Source: Transportation Corridor Agency

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