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Turnpikes' Future Fuels Speculation

Will the Orange County Transportation Authority take over the toll road agency? Some leaders say they have reason to be fearful.

March 22, 2004|Jean O. Pasco and Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writers

As the story is told in South County, the newest Orange County political conspiracy was uncorked over pasta at Vessia Restaurant in Irvine more than two months ago.

Lunching together were longtime pals Greg Winterbottom, the chairman of the Orange County Transportation Authority, and Stan Oftelie, executive director of the Orange County Business Council who formerly headed the transportation agency.

One topic of discussion: A possible OCTA takeover of the 51-mile network of toll roads operated by the independent Transportation Corridor Agencies. The TCA is searching for ways to keep one of its highways, the San Joaquin Hills, from defaulting on $1.9 billion in bonds by 2014.

If OCTA stepped in to save the day, it would dissolve two locally appointed boards that oversee the toll roads and place the county's transportation future in the hands of a single governing body.

Just the thought of such a maneuver lit a fuse in South County, which has 13 elected officials on TCA boards. In contrast, the 15-member OCTA board has only two South County members, one of whom only sits if needed.

As a region that only recently found itself on equal political footing with the older and more populous North, South County isn't about to give up any of its hard-earned influence.

The region matured politically after 1996 by fighting plans to build a commercial airport at the closed El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. Its defeat of the airport was cemented in 2002, and South County has struggled to extend its clout.

Its reaction to the perceived threat of an OCTA takeover was swift. Phone lines and the Internet blazed with fury over what was seen as a sneak attack on South County from the same forces that tried to cram the airport in their backyards.

"Some of us are suspicious," said Laguna Woods Councilman Bert Hack, who raised the issue of an OCTA takeover at a March 11 meeting of the tollway board. "South County has just come through a long fight. If you usurp South County's authority, then you'll have a fight."

But more could be at stake for South County seats on TCA boards. The other issue, they fear, might be money. Big money. Hundreds of millions of dollars in tolls are paid annually by motorists -- many of them from South County -- who use the San Joaquin, the Foothill and the Eastern highways.

There is concern that OCTA might want to take over the toll roads to secure a permanent source of revenue if Measure M, the county's half-cent sales tax for transportation projects, is not renewed by voters before it expires in 2011.

The worry is that OCTA will take control of the toll roads, tapping their revenue in perpetuity to fund other transportation projects at the expense of South County motorists.

Such a move would overturn long-standing promises to convert the tollways to free highways when their construction bonds are paid off.

"There seem to be some ulterior motives," said Laguna Niguel Councilwoman Mimi Walters, the Republican nominee for the 73rd Assembly District. "If this happens, we lose total local control."

The players in all this suspected subterfuge -- transit officials, policy makers, political consultants and business leaders -- emphatically deny any OCTA power grab.

There might have been chit-chat about a takeover during lunches and cocktail hours, they say, but nothing has jelled into a serious policy discussion.

"I never envisioned the situation that has occurred," OCTA's Winterbottom said. "I have no desire to run the TCA. No member of our board does. There is no plan to raid the TCA's coffers."

County Supervisor Bill Campbell, who sits on both the TCA and OCTA boards, said the transportation authority is not interested in acquiring an agency that is $4 billion in debt.

OCTA "has enough problems of its own," Campbell said. "The South County people I've talked to jealously want to protect their local interests."

Because OCTA operates the 91 Express Lanes on the Riverside Freeway, Campbell and Winterbottom say the only thing the authority wants is to discuss common issues. Those include toll collection, road design and construction, and consolidating administrative functions to save money.

Nevertheless, South County elected officials and political consultants say they have reason for their suspicions about OCTA's intentions.

Besides the Oftelie-Winterbottom lunch, county Treasurer John Moorlach has pitched his own plan to bail out the San Joaquin Hills. In a recent presentation to TCA board members, Moorlach listed OCTA, as well as other agencies, as a possible buyer of the faltering tollway.

Moorlach said he raised the possibility because it has been discussed in the past and he wanted to warn the TCA that it could happen.

As head of OCTA in the mid-1990s, Oftelie discussed a possible takeover of the toll roads and the elimination of their governing boards. He still talks about it today.

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