Last week the Reader made note of a proposal by Chula Vista City Council candidate John McCann to stop collecting tolls on the southern section of SR-125, a highway constructed with the aim of alleviating traffic from eastern Chula Vista commuters along the I-805 corridor.
While the plan then seemed as much a sham as anything, bleak news for the Orange County toll-road system released in the meantime suggests that a toll-free 125 may be even longer in the making than current estimates indicate.
In 1987, Orange County got the go-ahead to begin construction on SR-73, a toll road through the San Joaquin Hills allowing drivers to bypass an often-crowded section of I-405 to the coastal cities of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa. Opened in 1997, officials estimated traffic would generate $171 million by 2012–2013, allowing bonds for the construction to be paid off (and the road opened to nonpaying traffic) by 2033. Instead, the 2012–2013 time period generated a paltry $10 million in revenues.
In 2011, realizing the error of previous calculations and facing bankruptcy, the toll road's operator restructured its debts and pushed the collection of tolls out to 2042. Last week, the agency announced another restructuring — this one will keep the toll system in place until at least 2050.
The Orange County story, told by AllGov.com, notes that the $635 million South Bay Expressway (SR-125) went bankrupt in 2010 and was purchased by the San Diego Association of Governments for $341.5 million. At the time, its appraised value was $287 million.
Like their neighbors to the north, Chula Vistans have been slow to adopt the toll road as a primary transportation route. Because of lower-than-projected revenues, locals may eventually end up facing the prospect of an extended, rather than reduced, time frame for clearing the SR-125 debt and gaining access to the road toll-free.
Update 10/28, 12:05 p.m.
From SANDAG spokesperson Joy De Corte:
"Trips taken within the City of Chula Vista have increased more than 45% since 2011, which is when SANDAG acquired the lease to operate the toll road. Overall usage of SR 125 also grew more than 60% during this time period, and the total number of FasTrak accounts held increased more than 40%.
"In 2011, the SANDAG Board of Directors adopted financial goals in order to meet all debt service obligations and complete repayment by 2042. Total toll revenue in FY 14 exceeded $25 million, which is more than $2.7 million above the adopted target for this time period. Based on current performance and future forecasts, SANDAG is surpassing expectations to meet these goals and complete repayment as scheduled."