I-405 Toll Plan a Dead Issue for Now

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The Orange County Transportation Authority board Monday killed a hotly debated proposal to add toll lanes to Interstate 405 but did approve an additional free lane in each direction on the highway and emphasized that toll lanes remain a viable option to alleviate traffic congestion.

The vote among Transportation Authority directors was 11-4 in favor of adding the free lane, with Directors Todd Spitzer, Matthew Harper, Gary Miller and John Moorlach opposed and Janet Nguyen abstaining. Pat Bates was absent from the meeting.

Those opposed had been arguing for two free lanes instead of one, something the majority criticized as unfeasible given its extra $100 million cost.

While Transportation Authority staff made it clear that the toll option remains on the table, a steady stream of public officials again appeared before the board to criticize the toll option.

“Tolling on top of taxing was never part of the deal,” Fountain Valley Councilman John Collins said of Measure M2, Orange County’s half-percent sales tax for transportation improvements.

“The 405 freeway must remain free,” added Westminster Mayor Tri Ta.

Others, including the Orange County Business Council, supported the toll lanes.

The Transportation Authority would be turning its back on $1.5 billion in future toll revenues, said Brian Starr of the business council.

But local chambers of commerce shot back, saying the countywide group doesn’t represent them.

It’s “troubling” that the business council claims to represent all Orange County businesses, said Marah Fineberg of the Seal Beach Chamber of Commerce, adding that her group’s members say “no to toll lanes.”

“There is a total complete opposition to toll lanes” in our local business community, said Syed Shah of the Westminster Chamber of Commerce.

Serving as a backdrop to the meeting was legislation being pursued by Assemblyman Allan Mansoor, R-Costa Mesa, that would block toll lanes on I-405 altogether.

He presented board members with what he said were 2,400 signatures on a petition against toll lanes.

The Transportation Authority board is composed of 10 city council members, all five elected county supervisors and two “public members.” Caltrans is also represented by a nonvoting member.

Several board members, including Spitzer and Moorlach, argued for continuing to explore two new free lanes in each direction instead of one.

Transportation Authority CEO Darrell Johnson replied that it would be difficult to find the $100 million in needed financing for it as well as meet greenhouse gas requirements enforced by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG).

And Irvine Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Lalloway, who is also a Transit Authority board member, argued that spending $100 million on an extra lane would put at risk other transportation projects promised to voters who approved Measure M2.

Ultimately the two-lanes effort couldn’t gain enough support from the board to move forward.

In their past recommendation of the toll lanes, Transportation Authority staff have cited pressure from Caltrans to comply with a new federal requirement to speed up traffic in carpool lanes.

But board members have noted that there are other options to meet that mandate, such as increasing the carpool requirement to three or more occupants during peak hours.

“I’m just surprised that we’re even battling this kind of issue,” Moorlach said before the meeting.

Others point to scarce funds for freeway maintenance as a reason to pursue tolls.

Officials noted how intense the debate has been, with Johnson calling it “one of the most divisive” projects the agency has undertaken in recent memory.

Looking forward, Johnson said the future of transportation lies with maximizing the use of existing roadways. “We can no longer build ourselves out of it” in urban areas, he said.

He said the board needs to look at the role of toll lanes over the next 30 years.

By forcing that debate now, he added, officials risk losing the confidence of the voters who approved Measure M2.

But some board members said they were worried that staff’s recommendation was simply a delaying tactic that would lead to a “bait and switch” later on, with the ultimate approval of a toll lane.

Westminster Councilwoman Diana Carey also criticized OCTA’s use of the term “managed lanes” for toll lanes, saying people don’t understand what it means.

At one point, Chairman Greg Winterbottom, who has served as the board’s nonelected “public member” for 20 years, eventually grew tired of all the talking and called for a vote.

“As much as we’ve talked about this … it doesn’t seem like we’ve moved anybody off of any positions,” he said.

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

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