The South Bay Expressway is shown on April 11, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

State Route 125 drivers may stop paying toll fees much sooner than expected — if transportation officials can clear millions of dollars in debt more than a decade early.

The San Diego Association of Governments will seek to eliminate toll operations on the South Bay Expressway as early as 2027. Chula Vista officials hope the move will reduce congestion on interstates 5 and 805, as drivers would no longer avoid the 10-mile road that runs through the eastern portion of the city. 

Caltrans, the state’s transportation department, would take over the road after the toll is eliminated.

Why this matters

Chula Vista officials say charging a toll to use the South Bay Expressway has congested nearby freeways, and that eliminating the fees could help economic development in San Diego County’s second-largest city.

But in order to do that, SANDAG staff is now tasked with figuring out how to pay off $143 million in debt tied to the expressway — and “a lot of work has to be done in accomplishing that,” CEO Hasan Ikhrata conceded during a board meeting Friday.

“CalTrans will not accept a road back unless you identify some funding,” he said. “But the bottom line here is a lot of work has to be done and this has to be data-driven.”

SANDAG has managed the toll road since 2011, when the regional planning agency paid a private company in bankruptcy more than $340 million to operate it. Until now, officials had projected paying off the bond debt associated with the purchase by 2042.

Chula Vista Mayor Mary Casillas Salas has led the call to eliminate the tolls and points to where some of the money can be found: The agency will have built a $107 million reserve by 2027, and could also tap into an additional $20 million that state Sen. Ben Hueso secured for the agency in the new state budget.

City officials also say paying off the debt earlier could save money. About $65 million is projected for future toll-related infrastructure and other capital expenses, and about $73 million is estimated in interest payments.

Councilmember John McCann, who along with candidate Ammar Campa-Najjar is seeking to succeed Salas as mayor, said it’s “vital” that SANDAG fast-track efforts to eliminate the toll.

“It will increase air quality benefits because people will actually be using the underutilized space and not sitting in traffic,” he told the agency Friday.

The South Bay Expressway begins in Otay Mesa and runs through East Chula Vista, ending at state Route 54 in Spring Valley. More than 50,000 drivers use the toll road, with lanes largely staying clear throughout the day even as Chula Vista, San Diego County’s second-largest city, continues to grow.

SANDAG has recently been replacing aging toll equipment along the expressway. Last summer, the agency failed to capture an estimated $1.8 million in fees after management was aware of faulty equipment but failed to take action, inewsource reported earlier this year.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Jennifer Bowman serves as inewsource's Assistant Editor. Before that, she was an investigative reporter focusing on government accountability issues in southern San Diego and Imperial counties. She also used to cover education. She’s happy to be back in her hometown after stints at daily newspapers...