By Peter Samuel
June 9, nine years after California Transp Ventures (CTV) signed a franchise agreement with the state and after spending $25m in studies and other development expenses it received the federal Record of Decision (ROD) formally recognizing that it has received all necessary permits to allow it to proceed. The toll road together with a tax-funded 3.5km (2mi) gap/connector section of CA-54 that will connect it to a developing freeway network, and which is permitted in the same set of studies and will be built by CTV along with the CA-125/S toll road proper. The proposed pike is also known as the San Miguel Mountain Parkway.
Four teams are finalizing their design-build bids for submission end-August: FCI/Granite, Kiewit, MK and Modern Continental. Wilbur Smith Assoc is working on an investment grade traffic and revenue study to do a financing, hopefully before the end of the year. PB and Egis have formed three partnerships which will do the civil engineering and toll systems as sub-contractors for whichever prime contractor is selected, and operations for the operator of a 35 year toll franchise 35 years from road opening. CTV the developer may choose to operate the toll road as a for-profit entity, or it may attempt to transfer the franchise to a not-for-profit it has established.
Oh no, not another Newtrak?
After the 91 Express/Newtrak non-profit fiasco last year, which saw a nine-digit financing aborted and a secretary of transp fired by Governor Davis in a political firestorm, the idea of transferring the CA-125/S franchise to a non-profit form would seem an extremely high-risk strategy that could jeopardize the whole legal and political basis for CTVs project. Like 91X, CA-125/S was a contract written under AB-680, a law that envisaged only for-profit operations and which made no provision for the non-profit form. The franchise agreement is predicated on a for-profit operation with no regulation of revenues, toll rates or costs. Its protection of the public against profiteering consists of an arrangement under which Caltrans gets to share any profits beyond an 18.5% return on capital.
CTV was the first road project to be selected for federal government support under TIFIA, a law which grants for-profit projects selected by the US sec of transp partial tax-exempt funding. U.S. tax law generally penalizes for-profit infrastructure ventures as compared to so-called non-profit forms an oddity in a nation which is otherwise built on the for-profit form.
Kent Olsen at CTV says they are retaining the non-profit option until the design-build bids, and the traffic and revenue study are complete, and the capital market options for the project are clear, but his clear preference is to stick with the franchise agreement vehicle.
When CTV got its franchise for CA-125/S it was hoped to have the toll road built and operating not too long after 91 Express, whose franchise was signed at the same time. But CA-125/S faced strongly local opposition from local residents, especially from Bonita at the highly settled northern end, and it faced a series of endangered species problems at the wild southern end. Caltrans was subcontracted to do the environmental permitting work on behalf of CTV, probably a mistake, but given the local opposition and wildlife issues much of the delay was probably inevitable. The venture had to sponsor original research into the Quino butterfly and a supposedly rare perennial it lives on, buy 325ha to support gnatcatchers and cactus wrens, design bridges with bat breeding crevices, and move the alignment of the major bridge on the project to protect the vernal pools of a fairy shrimp among a list of 30 special wildlife support measures. To reduce impacts on the established local community at the northern end the road alignment was moved several times and now does a horseshoe bend that has a generally north-heading road aligned south-west for a while. Major efforts were made to conceal the highway and to contain traffic noise by sinking the roadway many places below natural ground level and bounding it with berms and walling. High quality architectural finishes to the structures and extensive landscaping are incorporated throughout, also serving to reduce local opposition.
The upside of the delays is that the highway opening in 2004 will be a much stronger and less speculative toll project than one that opened in 1996. There are now 25k homes, and probably 50k cars within 4km (2.5mi) of the toll road, Olsen says.
About midway up the right of way of the CA-125/S in rolling semi-desert ranchland are some huge residential developments. Visit the Otay Ranch sales office just off Telegraph Canyon Rd in eastern Chula Vista and one of the first pieces of literature they offer you is a slick flyer headed State Route 125 Tollway Coming Soon, Less Driving, More Living. The saleslady assured us she didnt like toll roads shed had some traumatically confusing experience on one in New Jersey she said but it would be very convenient once you work out how it works, she assured me.
The Otay Ranch development is located on 36 sq mi and involves some 25k housing units and a major array of shopping centers, schools, clinics and other components of a community a word that is constantly used there. The houses are all multistory and on very compact lots and are clustered to allow at least half the overall land area to be dedicated to wilderness or recreation. The design takes walking and biking very seriously with networks of walkways, bikeways and footpaths, all gorgeously landscaped. Collector roads without any abutting properties are grand avenues of mature palms with wide medians containing meandering walkways and massed day-lillies. Most of the Otay Ranch development is on high ground leaving the approach arterials to follow the canyon valleys but other developments are built around refreshing artificial lakes. Combined with the mild Mediterranean climate and the plentitude of good-paying jobs in the region it is little wonder people from all over are flocking to the area. For most Mexicans it is paradise over the border wall.
Vicente Fox is right. Tear down that wall, Mr Clinton, we say to borrow from Reagan. It should go, the way borders have gone in Europe. Maybe Bush will do it? That would create a San Diego-Tijuana metro area of 5m and an amazing economy dynamo. But the CA-125/S projections are conservative, assuming the wall stays.
Otay Mesa on the Mexican border at the southern end of the CA-125/S was once a dusty and rather improvised truck crossing point. In recent years it has been transformed into a sparkling, high-quality border area with an amazing array of modern warehousing and logistics arrangements, all in a splendid setting of heavily planted landscaping and wide roads for tractor-trailers. Just across the border is a connecting Mexican toll road and the major Tijuana airport.
The regions US population has grown from 1.0m in 1960 to 1.9m in 1980 to 2.9m now and the local planning projection for 2015 is 4m. CA-125/S traffic projections for 2015 are daily traffic of 120k at the north end, 75k at the southern. CA-125/S will be built 2x2-lanes paved, at an initial project cost of around $310m. Earthworks will be graded for inward widening to 8-lanes in the northern part and 6-lanes in the southern part. The concession agreement with Caltrans provides that CTV will add lanes when Level of Service drops below LOS-C. There is also additional space for a pair of HOV, buslanes, or if the rail mania persists light rail. Indeed truckers will appreciate gentle grades on the roadway that have been dictated by the maximum 4.5% steel-on-steel traction requirements of a possible trolley line in the corridor!
This makes for one very long and high bridge over the Otay River a small stream in a wide floodplain, but containing vernal pools and hence classified as environmentally sensitive. The bridge will be nearly 1km (3,000) with a main span of 90m (300) and 55m (180) high close to the height of the Coronado bridge, certainly high enough for any Mexican aircraft carriers to pass under. There are two other long bridges at the northern end of 460m (1500) and 500m (1600), each about 37m (120) high. The toll road caters to the horsey, jogging crowd with several trail overpasses, and of course the long bridges allow some safe wildlife movement.
Robert Garin, Egis representative at CTV, and VP, says the tolling will be designed to maximize usage of transponders. Readers on the gantries will register the entry point and the exit point at full highway speed. This will enable trip length to be computed and the toll to be proportional to distance traveled.
Only a single cash toll lane with a coin machine will be provided at each of the ramp toll lanes and a maximum of two off to the side of the mainline electronic toll express (ETX) gantry, which will be designed to allow 2x3 ETX lanes. Garin says he expects they will start with 50% ET transactions with 70% in the peak hours and within a year or two go to 75% ET. He thinks cash toll payment will have disappeared by 2010. A major incentive for patrons to get transponders will be built into the toll rates. With accurate trip tolling by ET it will allow chaper short trips than cash.
Toll rates will be set after traffic and revenue studies are complete. (Contacts Kent Olsen, Robert Garin CTV 619 338 8385)