On June 20, the City of San Clemente filed a lawsuit against the Transportation Corridor Agency (TCA)–the agency tasked with the construction of O.C.’s toll roads–in an attempt to force the agency to disclose how much it has spent on pro-toll road lobbying groups. By San Clemente’s estimation, the TCA has spent upwards of $20 million on lobbying groups such as the OC-based Venture Strategic firm, while simultaneously failing to pay off the billions of debt the agency still owes–an amount that balloons each year because of TCA’s repeated refinancing efforts.
“The TCA continues to refuse to follow the law and simply provide their multi-million dollar lobbyist and consultants contracts over to the public,” said Mayor Tim Brown of San Clemente in the lawsuit. “The amount of money the TCA has spent on lobbyists to keep their organization afloat, despite not having built anything in over 20 years, demands scrutiny, and the public has the right to know.”
It makes sense that the TCA would spend money on lobbying groups to complete their project, but there may be a conflict of interest because of which group they’re paying. Venture Strategic, who San Clemente claims is receiving TCA money to lobby for the SR-241 toll road, consulted Lisa Bartlett’s 2014 campaign for County Supervisor. In 2014, Bartlett paid $49,870 to Venture Strategic for consulting and campaign expenses, according to Bartlett’s finance expenses on Danapoint.org.
Coincidentally, Bartlett, who is a TCA Board Member, is the only County Supervisor pushing for the construction of the SR-241 in San Clemente. The proposed SR-241 extension would run from Rancho Santa Margarita, at the north end of Bartlet’s 5th District, through Rancho Mission Viejo, and terminate at the I-5 in San Clemente at the south end of her district.
Although Bartlett’s constituents in San Clemente and the burgeoning community of Rancho Mission Viejo have publicly denounced the extension of the toll road through their communities, Bartlett continues to push for its completion. Meanwhile, the TCA’s record profits from 2017 will soon increase even more at the expense of O.C. taxpayers.
Beginning July 1, the TCA will increase its tax on O.C. developers and home builders. The Development Fees Rate Increase will raise the tax on new building permits by 2.206 percent in the Foothill/Eastern TCA Area of Benefit, and 2.667 percent in the San Joaquin Hills Area of Benefit. Through this tax, the TCA will increase its record high 2017 profits at the expense of new home buyers who will have to pay for the increased cost of building permits in a TCA region. An undisclosed amount of this taxpayer money could then be paid to lobbying firms, such as Venture Strategic, to lobby for the unwanted toll roads.
“We’ve collected $15 million in developmental fees, but haven’t built anything yet,” said Erik Sund, Assistant City Manager from San Clemente. “We’ve tried asking the TCA, ‘How much have you been spending on lobbyists?’ but they’ve denied all our requests.”
Though the upcoming rate increase was approved by the TCA’s Board of Directors in 1997 as a way to mitigate large fluctuations in construction cost, there is something wrong with this tax increase: the TCA has continued to collect tax payer money, without building a new road as promised. In short, O.C. taxpayers are paying the TCA, who then pay lobbyists to push for a toll road that citizens don’t want.
“All Orange County cities under the Joint Powers Agreement of the TCA–including Irvine, R.S.M., San Clemente, and the new community of Rancho Mission Viejo–will be paying this cost increase. Sometimes it can be upwards of $3,500 per building,” Sund said.
Here’s how it works. Developers and builders pay a developmental fee to the city on behalf of the TCA for every building permit. For example, new building permit tax on a single family unit in the TCA’s Zone A Foothill/Eastern region of Rancho Mission Viejo will be $5,797 after July 1. According to the TCA’s website, this money is supposed to go to finance new roads, and to pay off the construction costs from the SR-241, 261, 133, and 73 toll roads. However, because the TCA hasn’t built a new road in two decades and chose to refinance their bonds instead of pay off their debt, the money has instead gone to funding lobbying groups like Venture Strategic.
So, because O.C. doesn’t want a toll road, and because the TCA hasn’t completed the SR-241 construction, the TCA currently serves no other purpose than to spend O.C. tax dollars on lobbyists in Sacramento, and to pay hundreds of thousands for TCA executives salaries.
Bartlett has consistently supported ludicrous financial moves by the TCA, and voted against the will of her constituents in San Clemente and Rancho Mission Viejo. Additionally, IBI Group–an engineering and infrastructure firm–states in their study of The Toll Roads that extending the $2 billion dollar SR-241 will not improve traffic in Bartlett’s district.
Back in 2013, the Pacific Research Institute conducted a study of O.C.’s toll road to help determine whether the TCA should be allowed to refinance its bonds on the toll road. The study found that refinancing the toll roads would add $1 billion to the TCA’s existing $10 billion debt on the toll road, and that the biggest source of debt came from the interest accrued by the original debt. Additionally, the study stated that the proposed refinancing, “would postpone indefinitely the date on which use of the roads would be toll-free to the public, as originally promised, because the cost of the refinance will require the tolls to continue indefinitely.”
In short, the SR-241, 261, 133, and 73 would never become toll free–as promised–and taxpayers would continue having to perpetually pay development fees which have served as life support for the TCA.
Yet, after the TCA received approval for their refinancing, Bartlet–then mayor of Dana Point–announced her support for the risky move in a TCA press release. “This is great news for Southern California drivers,” Bartlett said, “The refinancing enhances the agency’s financial position so that we can concentrate on providing and improving mobility.”
The following year, in 2014, the OC Register caught Bartlett and the CEO of the Foothill/Eastern TCA concealing $220,000 from the public to hire various firms to conduct public relations, consulting, and legal advice on the expansion of The Toll Roads. Bartlett stated that the money was needed to combat environmental groups who were fighting against the toll road extension.
Every time the TCA chooses to refinance their outstanding debt on the toll road, they pass the payment on to taxpayers in the form of toll fees and building permit fees, which only serve to keep the TCA alive. Meanwhile, Bartlett continues to push for a toll road against her constitutes wishes, and the TCA allegedly pays millions of tax dollars to lobbying groups.