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Toll Roads in O.C. Plan Rate Hike

Rush-hour fees could rise up to 50 cents on the San Joaquin Hills and Foothill-Eastern toll roads. A final decision could come by Aug. 14.

August 02, 2003|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

Orange County's largest toll-road network plans to raise rates as much as 50 cents during morning and evening rush-hours in an attempt to improve the operation's financial outlook.

Officials of the Transportation Corridor Agencies predicted that the proposed increases would boost revenue for the San Joaquin Hills toll road through southwestern Orange County, which has seen lower-than-expected earnings and downgrades of its bonds.

They said the hikes would help reverse a slight decline in revenue growth for the Foothill-Eastern toll road in eastern Orange County. The tollway's revenue still exceeds projections by several percentage points.

"Inflation and our debt service keep growing every year, and we need revenue for the San Joaquin Hills," said Lisa Telles, a spokeswoman for the corridor agencies. "We have to keep pace with all of this."

Under the proposal announced Friday, tolls for cash-paying motorists on the San Joaquin Hills road would increase to $3.50 from $3 at the main toll plaza. Rates for drivers using FasTrak would rise to $3 from $2.75. FasTrak is an electronic billing system relying on dash- or window-mounted transponders.

On the Foothill-Eastern system, which includes a short stretch of California Highway 133, tolls would increase to $2 from $1.75 at the Tomato Springs toll plaza for cash-paying drivers; FasTrak tolls would climb to $1.75 from $1.50.

Starting in October, the new rates would be charged to northbound motorists on the San Joaquin Hills and the Foothill-Eastern system between 7 and 9 a.m., and to southbound drivers between 4 and 7 p.m.

The boards of directors for the San Joaquin Hills and the Foothill-Eastern Transportation Corridors are set to consider the recommended increases in committee next week. A final vote could come as early as Aug. 14.

If approved, the new tolls would represent the fifth increase in five years for the San Joaquin Hills road, and the fourth in four years for the Foothill-Eastern. Both roads form a 51-mile network of highways operated by the TCA, a joint-powers authority based in Irvine.

Corridor officials said the rate hikes were expected to help generate about $1.3 million a year in additional revenue for the San Joaquin Hills and $1.9 million a year for the Foothill-Eastern.

Agency figures show that San Joaquin Hills revenue has been running about 77% of projections, and the gap has widened in recent years. By contrast, the Foothill-Eastern has recently been outpacing projected earnings at 104%. That has declined recently from 108%, officials said.

The San Joaquin Hills tollway has never met annual projections for traffic and revenue. Consequently, two Wall Street rating firms have downgraded to junk status more than $1.8 billion in bonds sold to finance construction of the 15-mile highway.

Trying to forestall a possible default, TCA officials have proposed merging the San Joaquin Hills and Foothill-Eastern systems. The merger was tentatively approved in April, but a final decision awaits a study. .

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