Toll road state is déjá vu for Laguna

News that the San Joaquin Hills toll road isn't attracting enough motorists to generate the money to pay off its investors came as no surprise to the community of Laguna Beach.

The city was the only community through which the toll road runs to never become a member of the Transportation Corridor Agencies. Local environmentalists predicted in 1988 that the toll road would not meet its financial goals. They fought the construction on environmental, aesthetic and financial grounds.

"It doesn't pencil out," Laguna Canyon Conservancy's then-President Carolyn Wood told anyone who would listen and quite a few who that didn't.

Recently, the L.A. Times reported that state Treasurer Bill Lockyer has launched a formal inquiry into whether San Joaquin Hills or Foothill-Eastern transportation corridors can cover mounting interest payments to investors in toll way bonds.

"No one is enjoying saying we were right," said Planning Commissioner Norm Grossman. "The sad thing is what happened and the damage that was done."

Grossman was vice president of the conservancy and Laguna Greenbelt Inc. when San Joaquin Hills was first proposed and comments on the environmental impact report were sought. He coordinated communications between the two groups united in opposition to the toll road, as proposed.

"The Greenbelt, the LCC, a group from San Juan and one from Newport filed the original law suit regarding the EIR," Grossman said. "At one time, there were 11 separate lawsuits going on and the Greenbelt was involved in most of them."

However, no one listened to the groups' concerns, let alone to arguments that financial and ridership forecasts were faulty.

Ridership in 2011 on San Joaquin Hills was only 43% of the original forecasts and revenue just 61% of predictions, the L.A. Times reported.

Corridor agency officials told The Times that a debt payment has never been missed and the latest traffic figures show an increase in revenue. San Joaquin Hills trails Foothill-Eastern in revenue, although tolls have been raised 12 times to the current $11 for a round-trip at peak time, among the highest in the country.

"That is because the Foothill-Eastern serves a purpose and San Joaquin Hills doesn't," Wood said. "San Joaquin Hills was built on the assumption of a development in Laguna Canyon that is now unpopulated open space.

Financial woes have been blamed on the economy, population shifts out of state and improvements in the 405 and 5 freeways.

"Nonsense," Wood said. "[San Joaquin Hills] was a bummer from the beginning."

Wood's voice was not the only one heard in the 1980s to pooh-pooh the financial viability of the toll road.

"Pete Fielding predicted it wouldn't work," Wood said. "But nobody paid attention."

G. J. Fielding, a retired UC Irvine professor, told the Times this month that inaccurate revenue and ridership forecasts were at fault.

Wood said agency predictions were never on target.

"Originally, it was thought that construction would start in 1999 at a cost of $380 million, which would be paid off in eight years," Wood said. "When construction finally began, the cost was $ 1 billion and it still hasn't been paid off."

Last year, San Joaquin Hills restructured about $2.1 billion in debt, with bonds to be retired in 2041, the second time the deadline has been reset, the Times reported.

"Extending the payment time to make sure we can make our debt payment is a necessary step," said Amy Potter, chief financial officer of the agency that operates the toll roads. "We have to be flexible."

What isn't flexible is the steely resolve of some Laguna residents never to drive on San Joaquin Hills.

Planning Commissioner Anne Johnson has commitments from her children and grandchildren that they also will never drive on it.

"Never have driven it, never will," said Verna Rollinger, former city councilwoman.

Grossman even extracts promises when he is a passenger in a vehicle with a fast pass that the driver won't take the toll road.

San Joaquin Hills stands as a painful reminder to them of what can happen to sensitive environments.

"The one positive from all this is that the lessons we learned in fighting San Joaquin Hills were put to good use in defeating Foothill South and preserving Trestles, one of California's great surfing beaches," Grossman said.

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