When it opened during the 1990s, Orange County's $2.4-billion tollway system was touted as an innovative way to build public highways without taxpayer money.
Today, the roads offer smooth sailing for gridlock-weary commuters willing to pay the price. But far fewer people are using the turnpikes than officials predicted, which means the highways generate far less revenue than expected to retire their debts.
There have long been questions about the long-term financial viability of the San Joaquin Hills and Foothill-Eastern corridors. But those concerns have now heightened, and a government oversight panel chaired by state Treasurer Bill Lockyer has launched a formal inquiry into whether the roads can cover mounting interest payments to private investors who purchased tollway bonds.