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Tolls on Ailing San Joaquin Hills Route to Rise 25 to 50 Cents

Approved easily by the board, the new rates on the O.C. turnpike will take effect July 1.

June 11, 2004|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

Tolls on the financially ailing San Joaquin Hills turnpike in coastal Orange County will increase anywhere from 25 to 50 cents on July 1 -- a rate hike that goes beyond what highway operators had planned for at most of the road's toll plazas.

The San Joaquin Hills board of directors voted 13 to 1 on Thursday to approve the rate hikes, which are expected to generate $1.5 million a year in additional revenue for the struggling highway. Cash-paying customers traveling the length of the route will now pay $4 each way during the morning and evening rush hours. When the road opened almost 10 years ago, the maximum toll was $2.

Some board members attribute the increase to the Transportation Corridor Agencies' failure to figure out how to prop up the toll road's slumping finances. A plan to combine highway operations and refinance their debt with a $4-billion bond issue was defeated in May.

"I think tolls will continue to increase as a result of the merger not taking place," said Linda Lindholm, a Laguna Niguel councilwoman who supported the consolidation as chair of the San Joaquin Hills board. "Now riders will start to feel the financial pinch" from the failure to act.

Since it opened in 1996, the 16-mile corridor from Newport Beach to San Juan Capistrano has been plagued by lower-than-projected traffic and revenue.

Though traffic has climbed recently, officials say the highway will default on $1.9 billion in bonds by 2014. Tollway operators said they recently had to use $1 million in reserves to protect an agreement with bondholders to maintain a 30% cushion between revenue and expenses.

The San Joaquin Hills is part of a 51-mile network of toll roads operated by the Transportation Corridor Agencies, a government entity based in Irvine. Included in the system are the Foothill-Eastern corridor and a short stretch of Highway 133.

The rate hikes were approved along with the TCA's $434-million budget for fiscal year 2004-05, which will be used to make debt payments to bondholders, widen the Laguna Freeway from four to six lanes, and plan for the proposed Foothill South tollway -- a project that would complete the county's tollway system.

The plan to merge the Foothill-Eastern and the San Joaquin Hills was defeated when it failed to obtain a supermajority of votes from TCA board members. That proposal was designed to subsidize the San Joaquin Hills and provide funds for the Foothill South.

TCA officials now are considering a bond-free plan by Orange County Supervisor Bill Campbell to shift money from the successful Foothill-Eastern tollway to the San Joaquin Hills.

"Had the merger occurred, the toll schedule would have remained the same," said Aliso Viejo City Councilwoman Carmen Vali-Cave, who sits on the San Joaquin Hills board. "Now we are increasing them above and beyond what our traffic and revenue studies call for."

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