Decision Makers Question the Destiny of I-405 Toll Money

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A hotly debated effort to put toll lanes on the Interstate 405 freeway in North Orange County could be put on hold for the time being after a countywide highways committee raised questions Monday about whether the state government will end up diverting much of the toll cash to itself.

“We are being rushed into making a decision about [toll lanes] on the I-405 when we have absolutely no assurances from CalTrans about the governance of the I-405 or any other toll facility in the region,” wrote Orange County Transportation Authority Director Todd Spitzer in a letter to colleagues, referring to the state Department of Transportation.

“Some local elected officials believe that CalTrans and the State are designing a plan to take-over any [publicly] controlled toll agencies in the future,” he added.

OCTA staff are recommending toll lanes as part of the freeway’s $1 billion-plus widening project.

But at Monday’s meeting of the Regional Planning and Highways Committee, Spitzer successfully urged his colleagues to recommend that the full board hold off on endorsing toll lanes until the concerns are addressed.

“If this isn’t putting the cart before the horse, I don’t know what is,” Spitzer said, referring to unanswered questions about where the toll money would go and who would control the lanes’ policies.

“I want all those commitments, and I want them in writing.”

“This freeway belongs to Caltrans,” pointed out Director Gary Miller. “We still don’t know what Caltrans wants; we don’t know what they’re going to take.”

The committee voted 5-2 Monday to recommend that the full board hold back on supporting toll lanes and instead conduct more public outreach, clarify with state and federal officials who will control the toll lane revenues and put together a list of city projects that could be funded.

Directors Matthew Harper and Gary Miller, who criticized the toll lanes idea altogether, dissented. Director Shawn Nelson wasn’t present for the vote.

Under the panel’s recommendation, OCTA would continue to officially endorse adding a single general lane with no tolls, known as Alternative 1.

Meanwhile, OCTA staff assured the committee that existing law already requires that the extra toll lane revenues — beyond paying off their construction and operational costs — be invested in the local communities around the freeway.

“It’s already in statute,” said OCTA General Counsel Ken Smart, pointing to Government Code 64112(f) and Streets and Highways Code 143.

Meanwhile, other officials are concerned that state lawmakers could later change those laws and redirect much of the money to help close the state’s budget hole.

As for the I-405 project, OCTA CEO Darrell Johnson pointed out that Caltrans will make the final decision on whether to pursue toll lanes.

“They are not bound to make the decision this board selects,” said Johnson.

But Caltrans isn’t likely to deviate from OCTA’s recommendation, he added, since OCTA has the “power of the purse” by being the agency that actually pays for the project.

At the same time, staff urged quick action on this issue, since changing paths later could push the start of construction past 2015 and cost an extra $40 million for each year of delays.

“As time goes by, time is money,” said Smart.

But committee members said they’d much rather get the support of local communities, even if it delays the project somewhat.

“Do we keep the trust of the people who voted for [Measure] M2 and knew what they wanted and knew what they were going to get?” asked Director Pat Bates, referring to the 0.5-percent sales tax for transportation upgrades. “We have not done a good job of bringing them along.”

Other directors said the cities have already started preparing to sue, which could push back construction even further.

Without a partnership of Caltrans, OCTA and the freeway-adjacent cities, Bates said, “we don’t have anything. We have years of litigation.”

OCTA needs to “build trust back into the process,” she added.

Other OCTA board members continue to question the very idea of toll lanes, which are sparking an outcry from residents near the freeway and their elected representatives.

They’ve taken aim at a major argument for the toll lanes: a federal law that requires California’s carpool lanes to operate at 45 miles per hour 90 percent of the time.

Miller pointed out that the law, MAP-21, expires next year.

“Why are we redoing our whole system for a legislative program that’s going away?” he asked.

Caltrans officials, meanwhile, say they expect the law to be renewed without any major changes.

And OCTA officials say their agency could lose about $140 million per year in federal funding if they don’t comply.

Meanwhile, Caltrans says a meeting of the minds isn’t too far away.

“We aren’t very far apart” on agreeing, Caltrans District 12 Director Ryan Chamberlain said of his agency and OCTA.

As for the amount of toll revenues, staff warned that allowing carpools of two or more people into the toll lanes, as some directors are seeking, would actually leave no leftover money for transportation improvements in neighboring cities.

“You can’t have a ‘two-plus’ toll policy and excess revenues,” said Johnson.

In the backdrop of the debate, officials said Caltrans is short on money for maintaining freeways.

Caltrans is “way in the hole on maintenance,” said Spitzer.

The state agency says it doesn’t even have money to maintain the toll roads it owns in South Orange County, according to Bates.

Others said they’re disappointed at “misinformation” being spread against the toll effort.

“I am concerned about the demagoguing of this issue,” said Director Jeff Lalloway, pointing to what he said were inaccurate claims that toll booths would be set up on the county line near Seal Beach.

“I do believe that Alternative 3 is the right policy for OCTA,” he added, referring to the toll lanes proposal.

At the same time, Lalloway said he doesn’t want to “cram [the project] down the throats” of nearby communities, which include parts of Seal Beach, Rossmoor, Los Alamitos, Garden Grove, Westminster, Huntington Beach, Midway City, Fountain Valley, Costa Mesa and Santa Ana.

The government operates “with the consent of the governed, and I think we need to get the consent of the corridor cities,” said Lalloway. “This is a regional issue, but at the same time that part of our region disagrees with this fairly strongly.”

“It’s necessary to have them buy into this,” he said.

The highways committee includes eight of the 17 OCTA board members. The full board is set to vote later this week on whether to take up the committee’s recommendation to hold off endorsing the toll lanes.

That board meeting starts Friday at 9 a.m. at OCTA headquarters in Orange.

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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