Drivers on the San Joaquin Hills toll road through western Orange County could be paying tolls for an extra six years under a proposed agreement that would restructure about $430 million of its $2.1 billion in debt.
The agreement is asking bondholders to lower payments for 13 years and restructure the way the agency pays interest on certain bonds. An agreement, which would push back the bond maturity dates by six years, to 2042, is expected in two weeks.
"Basically … what we're trying to do is be proactive about the way we manage finances here at the agency," said Tom Margro, chief executive of the Transportation Corridor Agencies, which also operates the Foothill and Eastern toll roads, which includes a portion of the 133 Freeway.
The 51-mile system of tollways, some of the first in the state, has been both a success story and a victim of the recession. For some Orange County commuters, the routes cut travel times in half.
The toll roads also have suffered because of ridership that never materialized.
In the fiscal year 2010, the San Joaquin Hills toll road, which stretches from Costa Mesa to Laguna Niguel, was used 56% less than had been projected. On the Foothill and Eastern toll roads, projections were off by 30%.
"They are forced to try to renegotiate the debt and that's what they are doing," said Martin Wachs, a transportation expert at the Rand Corp., a Santa Monica think tank. "It's certainly not good news, but it's not surprising."
Originally, the roads were built with the intent that the tolls would pay for the construction and extensions.
Once the bonds were paid off, the toll roads would be converted to freeways, freeing drivers of fees that can exceed $5.50 during peak hours. That date had been pushed from 2033 to 2036 in 1997, when the agency refinanced its bonds and added an additional $400 million to its debt load.