At the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) — the government agencies that planned, financed, constructed and operates The Toll Roads — driving forward despite the challenges of 2020 has been a laser focus. We’ve made much progress. Progress in helping the community recover. Progress on projects that will improve mobility in our region. Progress in paying down debt and solidifying our strong financial position. Progress in forging partnerships that will ensure Orange County continues its story of success. We pause for a moment to look back at what’s been achieved in a year unlike any other.
COVID Relief for Drivers
When the pandemic hit, TCA shifted its focus from The Toll Roads to the health, safety and well-being of our staff and the community at large. Of course, The Toll Roads remained open and were a resource for essential and frontline workers to get to and from their jobs. But, we knew we had to do more. That’s why we instituted business practices aimed at providing relief to drivers. From extending the time to pay a toll without an account to a moratorium on FasTrak® account suspension fees, we worked to take the stress off drivers. Additionally, TCA donated toll credits to the healthcare community and created educational resources to keep kids of all ages busy while safer at home. Read more about these and other COVID-19 efforts here.
In April, Samuel Johnson was appointed TCA’s CEO. Additionally, Valarie McFall, who has spent 20 years directing environmental initiatives for the Agencies, was named TCA’s first-ever Deputy Chief Executive Officer.
241/91 Express Connector Enters Final Design Phase
The 241/91 Express Connector Project has entered its final design phase. The phase is anticipated to last until 2022, with construction expected to commence in 2023 and completion scheduled for 2025.
The 241/91 Express Connector will be a direct flyover ramp from the northbound 241 Toll Road to the eastbound 91 Express Lanes and from the westbound 91 Express Lanes to the southbound 241 Toll Road. The connector will provide improved connectivity between the 91 Express Lanes and the 241 Toll Road and will enhance traffic operations for State Route 91’s general purpose lanes and the northbound 241 Toll Road. Read more about the 241/91 Express Connector.
Conclusion of South County Traffic Relief Effort (SCTRE)
In March, the South County Traffic Relief Effort study was formally concluded. The Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency (F/ETCA) worked with the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) and California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) on this effort, which concluded with the identification of an untolled extension of Los Patrones Parkway (Alternative 22 Untolled) for further consideration by the County of Orange, as the lead agency. This alternative would provide significant traffic relief with minimal environmental and community impacts. The action as well as the plan to have the County advance Alternative 22 received widespread public support.
Significant Milestone Reached for Oso Parkway Bridge Project
All six lanes — three in each direction — of Oso Parkway at the 241 Toll Road opened to drivers in July, marking a significant construction milestone for the Oso Parkway Bridge Project. Sidewalks and dedicated bike lanes on both sides are also open.
Once complete, the Oso Parkway Bridge will provide motorists a direct connection between Los Patrones Parkway and State Route 241, improving safety and traffic flow on Oso Parkway and under the bridge. TCA’s inclusion of a new sidewalk on the south side of Oso Parkway provides improved pedestrian access, especially for students who walk to and from Tesoro High School.
The F/ETCA funded the nearly $40 million project, which represents a successful multiagency collaboration with Caltrans and OC Public Works. The bridge is slated to open in early 2021.
Grazing at Live Oak Plaza Conservation Area
TCA entered into a three-year agreement with a local rancher to provide the cattle, water, additional feeding and other functions necessary to graze the land at Live Oak Plaza Conservation Area. The grazing will occur at the Trabuco Canyon site in late summer, late winter and spring. The first grazing should begin in early 2021.
In May, TCA adopted conservation grazing as the preferred science-based approach to manage the 23.2-acre property, which was acquired in 2005. Conservation grazing, or targeted grazing, is the use of grazing livestock to improve and maintain the quality of biodiversity of natural areas that have been previously disturbed.
Grazing is used as a means to restore native vegetation while mitigating the risk of wildfires through the removal of non-native grasses and plants. Not only is grazing a natural alternative to using harsh chemicals to maintain the land, it is also more financially prudent.
Customer Service Shines
Customer Service Representatives for The Toll Roads fielded more than 1 million calls during the year with a stellar average wait time of just one minute, eight seconds. This is an improvement over last year’s strong performance.
Customers who spoke with a Toll Roads representative gave an overall satisfaction score of 4.5 out of 5, with even higher marks in key categories. Customers said that the Customer Service Representative they spoke with listened and demonstrated an understanding of their question/request (score of 4.73) and that they were very satisfied (4.71 out of 5) with the representative’s ability to answer questions about products and services.
Pay Tolls at 7-Eleven and CVS Pharmacy
In July, The Toll Roads again enhanced customer service offerings, partnering with PayNearMe to add locations where drivers can pay tolls, replenish FasTrak accounts and resolve violations at participating 7-Eleven and CVS Pharmacy locations nationwide. The Toll Roads and PayNearMe first partnered in November 2017, allowing drivers to resolve violations at participating 7-Eleven locations. Over approximately one year, drivers quickly and easily paid more than 28,000 tolls at 7-Eleven locations across the country. Success and demand led to the expansion of offerings and locations.
2020 Financial Milestones
Approval of Budget
With the pandemic came difficult financial decisions for every organization — public and private. TCA approved a Fiscal Year 2021 (FY21) budget that addresses the unknown duration and impacts of COVID-19 and reflects a conservative approach focused on core operating necessities while reducing operating and capital expenditures by 51 percent. The budget preserves jobs and prioritizes key projects.
Amended Debt Management Policies
In July, the Agencies approved amended debt management policies that memorialize longstanding practices while enhancing transparency and bolstering the Agencies’ creditworthiness. The Boards took this action to provide additional detail in order to guide future Boards, offer enhanced transparency to the public and illustrate the Agencies’ sound fiscal position. A debt management policy ensures that debt is issued and managed prudently, including consideration of accelerated repayment schedules. TCA staff utilized best-practice guidelines issued by the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) and checklists and guidelines issued by the California Debt and Investment Advisory Commission (CDIAC) to update the policies.
Bond Refunding Approval
At its final meeting of the year, F/ETCA approved plans to reduce debt service and save millions by refunding some of its outstanding bonds. The refunding is estimated to save in excess of $100 million without expending cash or extending bond maturity dates. The refunding would also enhance the Agency’s cash position, which is key given the uncertainties of COVID-19, but also allows the Agency flexibility to pay down other bonds early — something the Board has expressed interest in — or invest the savings in key capital projects.
TCA Leadership, Staff Recognized
Resilience and innovation were benchmarks of 2020. Every TCA staff member worked tirelessly to continue to provide high levels of service and ensure TCA delivered on its commitments to enhance mobility and meet bond obligations. While this was a group effort, we are proud that a few individuals were recognized by the community and the industry.
Samuel Johnson, CEO
Samuel received the Contagious Leadership Award from the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association’s (IBTTA) Leadership Academy Alumni Association. IBTTA is the worldwide association for the owners and operators of toll facilities and the businesses that serve them. IBTTA’s Leadership Academy is an executive development program tailored specifically for leaders in public and private sector tolling organizations and assists in executive development. Founded in 1932, IBTTA has members in 23 countries on six continents. In 2020, Johnson served as president of the organization.
Valarie McFall, Deputy CEO
Valarie was named Woman of the Year by the Orange County Chapter of Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS). The annual award honors a woman who is a leader in transportation and has made an outstanding contribution to the transportation industry. McFall joined TCA in 2000 and has spent 20 years spearheading management and restoration efforts of nearly 2,200 acres of land for mitigation of transportation projects. She has held several key positions within the Agencies that allowed her to perform this important work, progressing over the years from Senior Environmental Planner to Principal Planner to Chief of Environmental Planning. This year, she became TCA’s first ever Deputy CEO.
Jason Ferrer, Controller
Jason was among the esteemed “40 Under 40” class presented by the Greater Irvine Chamber of Commerce. The award recognizes the next generation of business leaders and advocates who are making strides in their industries and the business community in Orange County. Ferrer instituted a teleworking process for accounting staff so that TCA could continue to operate and meet its financial obligations amid the pandemic and, under the leadership of Ferrer and TCA Chief Financial Officer Amy Potter, independent auditors returned an unmodified opinion of the Agencies’ financial statements for the 34th consecutive year, indicating that they fairly present in all material respects the financial position of TCA.