Op/Ed: Newport Beach Expands Regional Leadership

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Will O’Neill

By Will O’Neill, Newport Beach City Council Member

Who controls the 73 toll road and how are your tolls used?

Perhaps you wonder that as you pass through the Catalina View toll plaza at the top of the ridge, but don’t know who to ask.

Well, in addition to being on the Newport Beach City Council and former Mayor, I am also the new Chair of the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor Agency (the first Newport Beach representative since Rush Hill in 2014 to hold that spot).

Let’s discuss!

There are two Transportation Corridor Agencies. The San Joaquin Hills board runs the toll collections, debt payment, and operations for the 73 while the Foothill Eastern board does the same for the 133, 241, and 261. The two agencies have been successful in carrying more than 300,000 trips per day.

Newport Beach has a seat only on the San Joaquin Hills board because of its proximity to our city. The agency was originally formed in the 1980s by the County and nearly a dozen cities to plan, finance, construct, and operate the 73 with the focus on current and future transportation needs.

That agency financed the 73 through “non-recourse toll revenue bonds,” backed only by tolls and Development Impact Fees, since as today, few dollars existed at the state or federal level for new or improved highways.

That type of financing was relatively novel at the time. With three decades of maturity, growth and recent re-focus on debt reduction and early paydown opportunities, we have seen a marked increase in the agency’s bond rating.

As Vice Chair of the TCA’s Finance Committee for the past three years, it has been a real pleasure to help usher in the TCA’s first debt management policy. Over the past few years, both the Foothill Eastern and San Joaquin Hills boards refinanced substantial amounts of debt without extending any maturity dates.

That refinancing has saved the agencies more than $700 million. And at our next joint board meeting, the agencies will likely adopt a Strategic Plan that would retire another $600+ million in early debt paydown through 2028 and save $670 million in interest.

Those savings can be used to fund capital projects, retire debt faster and reduce or eliminate tolls, eliminating the need for the agencies.

While I will not be on the board when that happens – some bonds don’t mature until 2050 – I want future leadership to have the ability to pay off the debt, and either significantly reduce or remove the tolls.

Ultimately, this is about reliable infrastructure, ensuring our roads support the movement of people and goods, and fiscal stewardship. The TCAs are proving their worth in accomplishing these goals.

It is my honor to represent Newport Beach regionally and thank my colleagues on both our City Council and the San Joaquin board for this honor.

Hon. Will O’Neill is a Newport Beach City Council Member, former Mayor, and current Chair of the San Joaquin Transportation Corridor Agency board.

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