A new government agency was created to oversee the financing and construction of the proposed Foothill and Eastern freeways early Wednesday when the Irvine City Council voted to join a coalition of cities working to build the new roads.
Irvine's decision, which followed similar action by San Juan Capistrano and the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, brought in enough member cities to create a joint powers authority to begin developing the planned 35 miles of freeways through Orange County's southeast foothills. The agency's formal title is the Foothill/Eastern Corridor Joint Powers Authority.
A similar government agency is being formed to oversee the proposed San Joaquin Hills freeway between Newport Beach and San Juan Capistrano, and it should be set up by the end of the year.
The two new agencies will administer a $411-million developer-fee program that is expected to finance nearly half the construction costs of the new freeways. Each city joining the authority must agree to levy fees on new development averaging about $1,000 for each new house and $2 per square foot on new office, commercial and industrial construction.
"This makes the transportation corridor program a reality," Stan Oftelie, executive director of the Orange County Transportation Commission, said Wednesday.
"We have taken a significant step toward finding a stable source of revenue for these facilities . . . and we now can go to the state with the unprecedented ability to attract state and federal dollars to this type of freeway project," Oftelie said.
The new government authorities will make the final decisions on the size and configuration of the freeways, how they will be financed and how rapidly they will be built. They represent the first time that Orange County cities have worked cooperatively to levy fees for regional transportation improvements, Oftelie said.
Irvine's support--won after a grueling, four-hour hearing on the issue Tuesday night and into the early hours of Wednesday morning--was considered crucial to the success of both new authorities. Because so much of the city is still undeveloped, and because all three new freeways would traverse the city, Irvine developers alone will contribute about 25% of all fees collected under the program.
"I think this mechanism allows us to do something the public really wants us to do, and that is to begin to solve Orange County's transportation problems," Irvine Councilwoman Barbara Wiener said after the council heard testimony from more than a dozen business and community leaders in support of the program.
But Councilman Larry Agran, who voted against joining the joint powers authorities and imposing the developer fees, was critical of what he said was a lack of precise answers on how the freeways will be financed, since transportation officials have not yet identified any firm revenue sources to cover the $449 million not covered by developer fees.
While the current estimates for all three freeways total $858 million, there is no guarantee that costs will not go much higher, Agran said.
"The joint powers authority is fundamentally a blank check. There is no ceiling on the fees that will be levied. There is no fixed date when the program terminates. It is an absolutely open-ended debt and tax plan that will economically do great damage to our area," Agran said Wednesday.
Agran had urged the council to delay action on the issue until early next year, giving the 4th District Court of Appeal time to act on a ballot initiative that he helped draft that would require a citywide vote on new road fees.
The "Citizens Right to Vote Ordinance," which attracted the signatures of about 22% of Irvine's registered voters, was declared invalid by a Superior Court judge as a result of a lawsuit brought by the Building Industry Assn., the Industrial League of Orange County and the Irvine and Orange County chambers of commerce.
The business groups argued that local opposition should not be allowed to stand in the way of funding for regional transportation facilities. Tuesday night, business representatives and homeowners argued that the new freeways are needed to carry traffic around Irvine that otherwise might spill onto its streets from the congested Santa Ana and San Diego freeways.
"I am very much in favor of the peoples' right to vote, but not when it is motivated by drawbridge thinking," said R. S. Aikenhead, a professional engineer. "We came here because it was a great place to live; how can we expect to keep others out?"
Council members also argued that participating in the new joint powers authorities is the city's only chance to influence design of the new freeways, which Irvine hopes to limit to four to six lanes within this century.
Even Laguna Beach, which has steadfastly refused to participate in the joint powers authorities and developer fee program because of the city's opposition to the San Joaquin Hills freeway, has scheduled a meeting Oct. 29 to look at the issue again.
"It has always been our feeling up until now that we want no part of it because we are unalterably opposed to the freeway at all, and to join would be hypocritical," said Mayor Bobbie Minkin. "But I'm not altogether sure we should continue along with that way of thinking because at this point it's very difficult for us to influence other cities to our benefit from the outside."
So far, the Board of Supervisors, governing the unincorporated areas, is the only jurisdiction actually collecting the freeway fees, with about $3.3 million taken in so far. Other cities are expected to have the fees in place within the next 30 to 90 days.
Officials from the Foothill/Eastern joint powers authority have scheduled a meeting Friday to discuss how to set up the new agency, which will probably begin its official meetings by early next year, Oftelie said.