Local Officials Await State Decision on I-405 Widening

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Months after local officials all but killed a controversial proposal to put toll lanes on Interstate 405, transportation leaders say they’re still waiting for the state’s blessing to move forward with adding a free lane instead.

In response to intense protest from local communities, Orange County Transportation Authority board members voted in December to not pursue toll lanes on the freeway, which is one of the nation’s busiest.

OCTA officials say they were expecting the state transportation agency, Caltrans, to approve of the plan in January. But a decision still hasn’t been made, they said at Monday’s OCTA board meeting.

“We want to be able to move as quickly as we can on these items of procurement,” said OCTA CEO Darrell Johnson. He has previously estimated that delays would cost about $40 million per year.

The project will hit a “hard stop” in late summer or fall if Caltrans doesn’t give a green light, Johnson said.

In response to questioning from board members, the Caltrans director for Orange County said he expects his agency’s decision to be “coming very soon.”

Caltrans District 12 Director Ryan Chamberlain also hinted that state officials could ask OCTA to add a second lane to the project.

“It may not be just one general purpose lane in each direction,” said Chamberlain.

OCTA board members, meanwhile, were concerned about the time Caltrans was taking to decide on the plan.

Calling the situation “very frustrating,” board member Lori Donchak said Chamberlain’s assurance of a decision coming “soon…doesn’t sit well with me.”

In recent years, toll lanes emerged as an attractive option for Caltrans officials looking at a major gap in funding for freeway projects.

The state’s highway system needs about $8 billion for maintenance each year, according to Caltrans, yet only about $2 billion is expected to be available.

State transportation officials have also pointed to toll lanes as a viable option for to complying with a federal mandate to speed up traffic for zero-emission cars.

Staffers at the Orange County Transportation Authority were generally supportive of toll lanes as well, though the I-405 effort was met with fierce pushback from local elected officials and chambers of commerce.

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