In a Slap at the Kleptocracy, San Clemente Ditches the TCA (Toll Road Agencies.)

It’s been a long time since we checked in on San Clemente’s noble fight to protect themselves from the TCA’s (toll road agency’s) stubborn attempt to extend the 241 toll road directly into the heart of their historic town.  Four years since we wrote “Abuses of the TCA” and “Sachs of BS” (the latter a response to a piece of TCA propaganda printed in the Register) a lot has happened.  So first, here are the three most important developments on that front, of the past couple years: 

1.  March 12, 2020 – after years of stubborn activism and lawsuits from San Clemente and other interested parties, the OCTA, TCA, County, Rancho Mission Viejo (developers) and SC themselves agree on a much less damaging solution to traffic in that area, known now as the South County Traffic Relief Effort (SCTRE.) It would involve NO extension of the toll road; widening of parts of the Ortega Highway and the 5; and an extension of Los Patrones Parkway to La Pata.  Sighs of relief are cautiously exhaled.

2.  April 2021 (last month) – TCA’s toll-road dead-enders (particularly Rancho Santa Margarita’s Tony Beall and Yorba Linda’s Peggy Huang) begin to lay plans, out loud, to bring back the Zombie San Clemente option.  This is partly an effort to pre-empt a worthy bill by Senator Pat Bates (SB 1373, then 760, now withdrawn) that would have “codified” last year’s agreement to end the Toll Road extension.   Beall obsessively repeats “I don’t have a crystal ball,” meaning THINGS MIGHT CHANGE and we could try to do this all over again!  But the specter of “Option 14” is an existential threat to San Clemente, and the threat is taken seriously.

Senator Bates, concerned with TCA Zombie

3.  May 2021 (last week) – San Clemente does the unthinkable and leaves the TCA, on a vote of 4-1.  It is inspiring to see an OC city stand up to the kleptocracy that rules this county, or at least one of the more malevolent tentacles of that kleptocracy.  If SC had stayed they would have been obligated to turn over right of way to a 241 extension in the future if the political winds had blown that way;  now they WON’T have to.  The one council dissenter complains that “Now we won’t have a voice in the agency,” but sometimes having one voice out of 16 is worse than none.  (See how the West County OCTA members directly affected by the 405 toll lanes were constantly outvoted, throughout 2012-14.)  

Mayor Kathleen Ward, a registered Republican whom the OCGOP has disdainfully labeled a “Democrat” because she cares about the environment and stands up to special interests, pens the following statement:

I am not going into a history lesson on the TCA and I will keep my comments on this issue brief.

We joined this agency for specific reasons and promises made, promises that we in turn made to our residents and all taxpayers of Orange County.  San Clemente joined an agency with 11 other cities and the County to build two toll road corridors, with locations of the roadways set by State legislation.  The pledge we made with the other cities is that we would oversee this agency and we would pay off the debt and make these roads free upon turning them over to the State and Caltrans.

In my six years on this agency, I’ve seen no adherence to our agreement and no intention of paying these roads off.  As long as the board continues to not pay off the debt, the taxpayers of Orange County will continue to have to pay tolls to use these roads that were intended to be part of the free state highway system.

The agency wants to continue indefinitely and never end its mission.  San Clemente did not join this agency to agree to perpetually charge tolls for a system that was meant to be free, and to perpetually incur more debt for our taxpayers for any new future project the TCA can envision for themselves.

On the Foothill-Eastern TCA (the 241 Toll Road) there’s a board of 15 – 12 cities and 3 County Supervisors.

On the San Juan Hills TCA (the 73 Toll Road) there’s a board of 14 – 12 cities and 2 County Supervisors.

San Clemente has only one vote.  We alone cannot stop the agency from continuing to usurp its mission, delay paying off their bonds, and hold up an agency that was an experiment as the first-ever public toll road, at all costs, under billions of dollars in debt.

We can, however, use the one vote we do have to get out of this agency.

Kathleen Ward, Mayor, San Clemente.

Mayor Ward.


The Transportation Corridor Authority:

In How Many Ways is it Parasitic?

June 2020’s epic Grand Jury Report, entitled “The Transportation Corridor Agencies: Are They Taking Their Toll on Orange County?”, is well worth the read if you’ve got the time and inclination.  Did you know our twin/overlapping TCA’s (overseeing the 73, 241, 261 and 133) were intended to pay off the bonds required for the construction of those highways, and once paid off, those highways should be FREE?  Which should’ve happened long ago, except they keep REFINANCING their debt and finding new projects to make themselves necessary and get in more debt?  And that if a lot of the folks on TCA have their way, this will continue forever?

It’s not just the tolls drivers pay, or even more than that, the FINES on drivers who either spaced out or thought they could get away with driving the toll roads for free.  The BIGGEST toll the TCA takes on our county is something called:

“Development Impact Fees.”

The toll trolls love to boast that they keep their agency afloat “without taxes,” but this is a disingenuous semantic dodge.  (Technically, fees are not taxes, but who can tell the difference?)  Since 1986 the TCA has taken $765,735,000 in DIF’s from all construction projects, business and residential, in all the associated cities and unincorporated county areas – in a few years it’ll hit a billion.  (The fact that the OC Business Council and OC Taxpayers Association cheerlead  these crippling fees is just more proof that those two ubiquitous nonprofits are Orwellian.)

And as any conservative will tell you, these hidden costs are picked up by you and me, the homebuyer, renter and consumer.  No wonder our prices are so high!  And if the TCA isn’t stopped, warns the Grand Jury,  “OC residents and business developers will continue to pay these fees at an ever inflating rate … in perpetuity.” 

Check out the city-by-city comparisons for this hoovering:

(Click to see.)

Vistas of Endless Debt.

The bonds taken out in the early 90s to construct the toll roads were $2.419 billion.  This was supposed to be paid off by January 2035.  But twice so far the TCA has restructured the bond debt, putting off the date of final payment (and the lifetime of their agency) to 2053 when most of us reading this will be dead. “If carried to term, most homeowners’ mortgages result in a payment of around twice the amount of funds initially borrowed. In this case, the TCA will pay back more than 3.4 times the amount of money borrowed to close out the debt.”  (Over 11 billion at this point.)

But wait – there’s more!  There are signs that many on the TCA are intending to restructure YET AGAIN in 2023 and/or 2025, postponing the date of their final payment, and their agency’s sunset, into the time when our great-grandchildren will be travelling by jetpack.   Correspondingly, the total due in this scenario will be somewhere near unthinkable.  

The Grand Jury concludes: “In an analysis of the current SJHTCA bond debt repayment schedule, we have found that all the bond debt could be conservatively retired by June 30, 2036 and that this could be accomplished even with stopping the collection of tolls on SR-73 after September 30, 2032.”  [You hear that? The 73 should and could be FREE in 11 years. “With a cash and investment balance of approximately $694,954,000 as of June 30, 2019 this Grand Jury proposed conservative payoff schedule could be implemented as early as June 30, 2020 if the Board would commit to doing so.” 

Click here to see the current financial state of the TCA, courtesy of Truth in Accounting:

Click for PDF

Mission Creep / Self-perpetuation.

It’s a well-known fact about bureaucracies, that consciously or not they are driven to self-perpetuation, to keeping themselves relevant at all costs – it’s as old and natural as bacteria’s desperate quest for survival.  The TCA is no exception, in a big way.  They haven’t laid any major new highway since 1998, which is as it should be, yet they have spent every year since then in a dogged quest to find themselves new missions. The Grand Jury noted that “What new project or network expansion can we find that will add a new goal for the agency?” was a constant guiding question for the management and board members.

At THIS point they figure they’ve got themselves surviving till their debts are paid off in 2053 (32 years from now), yet one Board member recently fretted about “tying a future Board’s hands forty years from now.” With each new major project they ensure themselves MUCH MORE DEBT and a much longer lifetime – which would have been another result of their planned 241 extension along with the despoliation of San Clemente (so the County owes SC a debt of gratitude for defeating that.)  The Orange Juice Blog concurs with the Grand Jury’s conclusion that the TCA should forget about any new missions and “should focus solely on paying off its bonds and ending its operations.”

Not the Brightest Bulbs.

The Boards seem dominated by a few aggressive, acquisitive, power-hungry members who know exactly what they’re doing (Tony Beall comes to mind.)  But the reps sent by many cities seem to be followers who fit my 2017 description below (Irvine’s Christina Shea comes to mind.)

The sort of pols who crave a seat on a board like TCA are not always the brightest bulbs in the chandelier, and are quickly dazzled by their new friends.  They are wined, dined, and flattered by bureaucrats and businessmen whose livelihoods and profits DO depend on endless development.  Kool-aid does get drunk.  These politicians begin to refer to themselves in their private e-mails as “Masters of the Universe.”

And that’s where local politics gets regional: After Anaheim‘s 2016 elections, the first under the districting system, the kleptocracy briefly lost control of Council for two good years.  And so the City of Kindness sent honest Dr. Jose Moreno to the TCA, and what he saw dismayed him – he recognized many of the same corrupt names he’d been fighting so long in Anaheim, and immediately began pushing for more accountability and transparency, less consultant spending, and San Clemente still remembers him as a hero.

Dim bulbs: Shea, Kring, O’Neil.

But in 2018 the kleptocracy regained control in Anaheim (by quadrupling their spending) and Jose was replaced by loyal order-taker Lucille Kring; when she termed out in 2020 she was replaced by Trevor O’Neil, who plays a conservative badly on TV and has never said no to a kleptocratic project.  (And what Anaheim voter was thinking about the toll roads, and the county’s Development Impact Fees, when they cast their votes for Council?)

(By the way, the Grand Jury discovered in their interviews that most TCA Board members had no idea what was in the founding documents of their agency; all they knew about their mission was what they were told in their brief orientation by … a paid CONSULTANT.)

A Perpetual Bacchanalia of CONSULTANTS.

Sometimes it seems like Orange County’s kleptocratic hotbeds, such as the TCA, exist largely for the benefit of a class of creature called “consultants.”  Justifying and perpetuating their own existence, and forever raking in millions upon millions, which always essentially comes from you and me, though we have no say in it.  This TCA is a real gravy train for them – some of them help come up with new projects to justify the agency, and many more of them work on “turd-polishing” detail, trying to make the agency and what it does look good to the public, so the gravy train won’t end.

In March 2019, the Times’ Adam Elmarhek embarrassed the agencies with a story called “While You Sit in Traffic, These Tollway Consultants Charge the Public $185 an Hour for Reading News.”   We see many familiar names in this article, names associated with everything crooked that happens in this county – Curt Pringle and Associates, of course.  Arianna Barrios.  Jennifer Fitzgerald.  Jeff Corless’ Venture Strategies which really went the extra mile, taking on San Clemente dissenters with a vengeful fury, free speech be damned!

But inflated prices, dubious work product, and essentially unjustifiable existence aside, it is you and I who pay these characters.  And we have no say in it.

Some Politicians Try to do the Right Thing (and some regret it)

Credit where due – three south county Democrats newly elected in 2018 kept campaign promises and in 2019 wrote strong public letters to Controller Betty Yee demanding audits of the TCA and accusing them of fiscal mismanagement – Congressmen Mike Levin and Harley Rouda, and Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris.  Letters which received no response from Yee – the folks who want the TCA to continue pull a lot of strings in Sacramento.

Four stand-up pols: Levin, Rouda, Cottie, Rocky.

The Grand Jury observes that “in an almost ‘Tammany Hall’ fashion, any elected official who opposed any action taken by the TCA (especially those that might limit its scope of activity) at some point immediately thereafter in their re-election cycle … discovered substantial opposition”  – withdrawal of funding or endorsements, or even savage political attacks, making re-election difficult.  Well, Levin and Cottie won re-election in 2020 but Harley didn’t – unprecedented bushels of cash from both Klepto and Trumpy interests pushed ignorant Covid-denying toll troll Michelle Steel right past him. 

The dire political observations of the Grand Jury seem to apply more to Republicans, as the OC GOP is (much more than the DPOC) a wholly-owned organ of the kleptocracy.  Two brave South-County Republican assemblymen did more than write stern letters – they both authored and pushed bills to stop the TCA’s ability to charge DIF’s, and prevent it from incurring any new debt.  Both of those bills were furiously lobbied against, and both lawmakers were punished severely by their Party and its lockstep voters.

North San Diego Assemblyman Rocky Chavez was one of them, and the moderate but honest Republican would have had a good chance in the South OC Congressional race … but all the big money and GOP endorsements went instead to heartless financial crook Diane Harkey, an outspoken toll road backer (natch.)  And Levin went on to win that race, which is all for the best.

Bill and Lisa.

Then there’s the sad and sordid tale of Bill Brough, the courageous Assemblyman MOST determined to take on the TCA.  (When I suggested to Senator Moorlach that he get a little tougher with the agency, he cracked, “Yeah, that worked out real well for Bill Brough.”)  Apparently Brough had a drinking and womanizing problem (pretty common in Sacramento from what I understand.)  Well, if you’re gonna take on powerful special interests, THERE is their ammo.  Maybe he really did do everything he’s accused of, but it can’t be a coincidence that his most prominent accuser was Lisa Bartlett, the most toll-enthusiastic of the OC Supervisors and a client of TCA consultant Jeff Corless.  Long story short Brough lost his OC GOP endorsement, and he lost his 2020 re-election to toll troll Laurie Davies.

But look at the time!  Here we are talking about how the TCA should wind down and sunset, while we should be winding down and sunsetting this story!  I’ll leave you with three fun but edifying videos:

In the first we see Rancho Santa Margarita Mayor and TCA director Tony Beall (with whom I apparently attended Mater Dei High School) exhibit “the paranoid style in American politics.”  In this 7-minute political whine (at a March 12, 2020 TCA meeting where public commenters were confined to 1 minute each), Tony among other things

  • blames the fact that his own RSM constituents were threatening him with recall … on San Clemente anti-toll-road meanies (of course SC had nothing to do with it),
  •  celebrates the primary defeat of Bill Brough as some kind of ringing endorsement of toll road extension from the voting public (no, it only reflected the success of the TCA’s smears making Brough look like a sleazy cad,)
  • insists it is the anti-toll-extension folks – NOT HIM AND HIS FRIENDS! – who engage in “politics” and “divisiveness.”
  • A little after the 3-minute mark San Clemente’s Mayor Ward tries unsuccessfully to shut down this totally inappropriate political rant.

This next video is mostly the voice of former Supervisor Shawn Nelson giving his fellow TCA board members a rash of shit, probably sometime in 2018.  This is the plain-spoken truth-telling Shawn Nelson we used to love before he became a politician.  The words he says are good; though I’m still not sure if he did anything on that board to back those words up and I’ve lost his cell number.  Another high point is Mission Viejo toll-lover Ed Sachs announcing a 15% increase in toll revenues that year; someone jokes “That’s four more cars!” and everyone laughs.  All truth in jest!

Finally who can forget this 2018 video of San Clemente housewife Courtney W. discovering the web of kleptocracy that we’ve all come to know up in the north county over the years?  All the same names are there – most importantly, the OC Business Council, OC TAX, and Curt Pringle – never far off when there’s a chance to transfer vast chunks of wealth from the public to their friends.

And this is the Kleptocracy that I keep mentioning, there’s no better word for it.  My next piece will be “Orange County’s Kleptocracy: A Primer.”  The TCA is only one tentacle of it, but all the tentacles behave in a similar way.  Matt Taibbi’s celebrated phrase “a Great Vampire Squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money,” is apt here, if we think of Orange County’s taxpayers, residents, businesses, environment, and politics as “the face of humanity.”

About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official political troubadour of Anaheim and most other OC towns. Regularly makes solo performances, sometimes with his savage-jazz band The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at, or 714-235-VERN.