By Shawn Raymundo
Calls for further investigation into the activities of the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) continued to mount, as county congressional officials have looked to the state’s transportation office to pick up where a recent grand jury report left off this summer.
Congressional Reps. Mike Levin, Katie Porter and Harley Rouda—all of whom represent portions of Orange County—announced on Wednesday, Sept. 9, that they sent a letter to Rhonda Craft, the inspector general for the California Department of Transportation, asking her to continue investigating the TCA.
The request comes a few months after the Orange County Grand Jury released its findings on an investigation into the TCA’s operations. The grand jury had prefaced in its report that it had to cut the investigation short because of the pandemic.
“While this report raises grave concerns regarding the TCA’s activities, the Grand Jury acknowledged it was forced to suspend its investigative operations because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and submit its report early due to its time-limited (impanelment),” the congressional letter to Craft, dated Sept. 3, stated.
“As the TCA operates Federal-aid highways within our congressional districts, we urge you to consider launching an investigation to follow up on the Grand Jury report to help ensure that these agencies abide by the intent of their founding legislation and implement policies that would provide for the sunset of their operations,” the letter continued.
In the 55-page report released in June, the OC Grand Jury found that the toll road operators have continued to place themselves in road planning projects outside of their legislative purview, despite having fulfilled much of their mandates.
The grand jury noted that the TCA’s duties and responsibilities already are under the purview of Caltrans and the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA).
“The TCA clearly has the mission to operate the toll roads and pay off the bonds, but beyond that, any additional planning and activities could be considered out of its legislatively authorized scope of activity since the toll roads are essentially complete,” the report stated.
The report had also raised a conflict-of-interest claim, noting that an unnamed member of the agencies’ boards of directors “acted favorably on a TCA contract with a firm where he/she had a personal or political interest.”
Citing the TCA’s financial documents, the grand jury further reported that the TCA’s actions to refinance their bonds used to fund the construction of the toll roads have led to ballooning interest payments needed to be paid as part of its overall debt—currently slated at more than $11 billion and due for completion by 2053.
“The Grand Jury noted the claim that refinancing at lower interest rates may have extended the pay-off date and supposedly saved millions of dollars in interest payments, but the reality is, the action drove up the overall cost of repaying the debts,” according to the report.
“What this means is that every time the debt of each (Joint Powers Authority) is restructured to a later pay-off date, the TCA extends its life, which is in direct contradiction to the founding principle cited when the agency was established in 1986,” the reported added.
Rouda (CA-48) said in Wednesday’s announcement that Craft should open the investigation immediately “to hold TCA to account for their impropriety and ineffective use of taxpayer dollars.”
“From lobbying Sacramento to lining the pockets of senior management, it is clear that TCA is serving themselves—not the people of Orange County,” he continued.
Levin (CA-49) echoed Rouda’s sentiments, stating that TCA has “a responsibility to serve the public interest and use taxpayer dollars wisely,” but “it’s clear that they have failed to meet that responsibility. TCA’s actions undermine public confidence, and the Caltrans Inspector General must hold them accountable.”
In an email to San Clemente Times on Wednesday, TCA Media Relations Manager Kim Mohr said that the “TCA rejects the notion of an external audit” and that the “Grand Jury itself stated that it found no evidence of fiscal mismanagement,”
“The Agencies have engaged independent CPA firms to conduct annual financial statement audits since 1997,” she added. “The audits have resulted in an unmodified opinion every year, indicating the Agencies’ commitment to ensuring strong internal controls around its financial processes.”
Mohr also noted that the TCA Boards of Directors will meet Thursday, Sept. 10, to discuss a formal response to the grand jury report.
The TCA has previously criticized the report calling it incomplete and contained outdated information.
Earlier this month, the San Clemente City Council voted to similarly call on Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer to investigate matters of the grand jury report, specifically regarding the conflict-of-interest allegation.
The city has also initiated a challenge to the TCA’s development impact fees imposed on residents and operators who benefit from the toll roads.
The city is arguing that because the remaining portion of the 241 Toll Road—which was planned to connect to Interstate 5, south of the city—is no longer expected to be completed, the fees for those in San Clemente should be much less than what is currently being charged.