OCTA Cites Authority to Cut 405 Toll Lanes

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The Orange County Transportation Authority board and its Taxpayer Oversight Committee have the authority to shift money to the planned I-405 expansion and avoid creating toll lanes, according to information that evolved emerged during a board discussion.

The proposed I-405 widening from just north of state Route 55 to the I-605 has generated substantial turnout at community meetings, and Supervisor John Moorlach, a member of the OCTA board who represents part of the area near the freeway, said a number of his constituents are unhappy.

“I’ve had all these people calling me,” he said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

The widening has three alternate plans. All three would largely be financed by OCTA with money collected from county residents and visitors through a half-cent increase in the sales tax. The final decision on which alternative to use will be made by CalTrans after consulting with OCTA.

The goal is to ease congestion and increase travel times through the 14-mile zone that includes Costa Mesa, Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach, Westminster, Garden Grove, Seal Beach and unincorporated Rossmoor.

The first proposal, costing $1.3 billion, would simply add another lane in each direction along much of the area.

But the second plan, at an estimated cost of $1.4 billion, would add two standard lanes in each direction.

It’s the third alternative, however, at a cost of $1.7 billion that is drawing the most attention, because it would eliminate the current carpool lane in each direction and turn it and an added lane into toll lanes. A standard lane would also be added in each direction.

Moorlach told the OCTA board that some of his constituents were complaining they already were helping to underwrite the project through the half-cent sales tax, known as Measure M2. Why, he said they asked, should they have to pay tolls on top of that to make decent time driving the freeway? Other freeways, like the I-5 in North Orange County and state Route 57 have been widened without adding toll lanes.

The I-405 tolls would go to pay about $400 million of the $1.7 million cost, according to staff reports. In addition, they would remain in place permanently after the widening was paid for, giving OCTA an ongoing source of income. A similar plan is in place on state Route 91 near the Orange County-Riverside County border. Because the freeway there goes through a canyon, there’s no way for drivers to simply get off when traffic piles up, making the toll roads attractive for those who can afford them.

The stretch of I-405 between Costa Mesa and Seal Beach similarly is blocked from much future widening because of the dense development adjacent to it. “Think of it as a canyon,” Tustin City Councilman Jerry Amante, a member of the OCTA board, advised his colleagues.

But under alternative two, which adds two regular lanes in each direction, the county already has $1.3 billion of the needed $1.4 billion on hand.

During Monday’s meeting, Moorlach wondered whether OCTA would consider putting an item on the November ballot that would, if approved by voters, let OCTA move $100 million in other freeway money into the I-405 account. That would allow completion of the second alternative expansion without the need for toll lanes.

An election isn’t necessary, OCTA attorney Ken Smart told the board. The board already has the authority to move money in the freeway account from one project to another. All it takes is a two-thirds vote of the OCTA board and two-thirds approval from the Taxpayer Oversight Committee.

Moorlach asked Smart to give him that analysis in writing, and he added that he wanted to talk in more detail with OCTA CEO Will Kempton. But during the Monday board meeting, Kempton reminded Moorlach that one consideration is which widening alternative is the best investment.

Once the debt is paid off for constructing the toll lanes, Moorlach said Tuesday, toll roads with captive drivers, like the 91 and potentially the I-405 “are just money-makers. It’s a new revenue source for future building projects.”

Please contact Tracy Wood directly at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/tracyVOC.

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