Orange County transportation officials are lowering monthly account balances for drivers who pass through the four-lane 91 Express toll road, as California’s stay-at-home orders are landing hits to toll road traffic countywide.
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What was, around this time last year, an average of around 50,000 trips per day for the 91 Express Lanes — an 18-mile toll road running east and west between Orange and Riverside counties — has dropped by 70% down to around 15,000 daily trips this month as a result of the coronavirus public health crisis.
Toll revenues have fallen with the traffic by about 60%, according to the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), which operates the 91 lanes and will operate the I-405 Freeway toll expansions when they open up. The Transportation Corridor Agency (TCA) operates the others in the county.
The agency’s Board of Directors at their April 13 meeting approved a number of relief measures for drivers without discussion, which include waiving monthly account fees for some drivers who pass through the toll road and capping toll rate increases for up to 90 days.
OCTA adjusts the toll rate up or down for the route based on traffic volumes periodically recorded. Because traffic volumes have declined, officials in a staff report said they don’t anticipate that toll increases will be triggered over the next quarterly period.
Drivers whose toll road accounts incur monthly fees but haven’t been updated to the new, lower monthly account balance — put in place when the agency found ways to operate its transponder device payment system at a lower cost — will have their fees waived for 90 days, with possible extensions if the stay-at-home orders are still in place by then.
The 91 Express Lanes currently has $91.7 million in outstanding debt, with interest payments due to investors every February and August. The agency’s set to make its next debt payment of $8.7 million on Aug. 15.
Meanwhile, the other toll roads in the county that are separately operated by the Transportation Corridor Agency (TCA) are taking traffic hits and possible cash flow problems of their own.
TCA officials said they started feeling the impacts of the crisis in the second week of March.
Since the week ending March 8, the agency reported declines in total weekly transactions by 64% for the Foothill/Eastern branch of the agency — which manages the 133, 241 and 261 toll roads that link the 91 freeway near the Orange/Riverside county border to the I-5 in Irvine and South Orange County — according to an April 1 finance presentation.
For the San Joaquin Hills branch of the agency, which manages the 15-mile 73 Toll Road from Newport Beach to San Juan Capistrano, weekly transactions went down by 74%.
TCA’s Chief Financial Officer Amy Potter said no plans are in place to waive account fees because the agency already eliminated those back in July.
Despite being $4.9 billion in debt, which won’t be paid off until 2050 for the San Joaquin corridor and 2053 for the Foothill/Eastern corridor, Potter said the agency’s well-positioned to meet its debt obligations next year even with the hits to traffic resulting from the crisis — “though there will be an impact.”
“For the current year, we’ve already met all of our financial obligations,” she said in a Tuesday phone interview. This year the agency paid off a total $115 million of its debt between the San Joaquin and Eastern/Foothill corridors. Next year that payment will be roughly the same.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @photherecord.