Transportation Officials Battle Over Toll Lanes Proposal

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Orange County’s top transportation officials clashed with each other Monday morning on whether to confront state plans to put toll lanes on America’s busiest stretch of freeway.

Ultimately, a majority of Orange County Transportation Authority board members rejected proposals to challenge the state more directly.

State officials plan to approve a $1.3 billion plan, largely funded by local Measure M2 sales tax money, to add a free lane on the I-405 between Costa Mesa and Seal Beach and rebuild 17 bridges to make space for more lanes.

Yet Caltrans – the state transportation agency – plans to use the space created by that local tax to then install paid toll lanes along the freeway.

Numerous local city officials and state legislators are vehemently opposed to the plan, and tried this week to get OCTA board members to support an alternative plan they say would not involve tolls.

“I continue to hear overwhelming objection to toll lanes, and not just in the corridor cities,” said board member Matthew Harper, mayor of Huntington Beach and a candidate for state Assembly.

“Why does Caltrans and OCTA seek input from the Orange County people, and then they ignore it?” asked board member Gary Miller, who is also a Seal Beach councilman.

OCTA staff, meanwhile, argued that pursuing that alternative would delay the project by 18 months, with the delay alone boosting the project’s cost by about $60 million.

Those extra costs could endanger funding for other freeway projects in Orange County, several board members argued.

“A delay or additional cost in putting other projects at risk here, is not something I can vote in favor” of, said board member Jeff Lalloway, who is also an Irvine councilman.

A large majority of the OCTA board made it clear they don’t support the cities’ plan, which they argued would require another $100 million to $150 million in funding.

“Unless somebody has the $100 million ready to go, and it’s an alternate source outside of OCTA,” the current plan should still move forward, said board member Frank Ury, who is also a Mission Viejo councilman.

“If you don’t show us the money, it’s kind of a one-side discussion.”

The final vote tally was 11-4 to support the current path, with board members Miller, Tom Tait, John Moorlach and Todd Spitzer opposing. Board members Janet Nguyen and Miguel Pulido were absent.

Pulido had been present for the early part of the meeting but was absent for the toll lanes discussion and votes.

Board members also rejected an effort by Harper to have OCTA staff study whether the cities’ proposal, which would add a free lane and a carpool lane in each direction, is viable.

Monday’s discussion also included an intense confrontation involving board member Todd Spitzer.

It stemmed from members in support of staying the current path saying throughout the meeting that they opposed toll lanes.

Spitzer asked that they take a formal vote to register their verbal opposition.

In particular, he wanted his colleagues to vote to state their opposition to the state’s toll lanes proposal and send it to Caltrans and Gov. Jerry Brown.

Caltrans’ top Orange County official, Ryan Chamberlain, then said such a move could delay the project.

OCTA Darrell Johnson chimed in that approving the motion on the floor, Spitzer’s proposal, “would have some level of delay, at a minimum, just to understand” what it means and drive up costs.

Spitzer went off on Caltrans officials, questioning what kind of “partner” they really are.

“Now they’re floating out there, ‘Oh really, you want to go on record and…actually vote as you said it, as opposed to just saying it on the side? Now we’re going to put a delay on the table,’ ” Spitzer said.

“The fact that some of us simply want to go on the public record…suddenly they play the delay card.”

Lalloway and others noted that Caltrans is in control of the freeways, which it owns.

“We can’t pick and choose who our partner is here, and it’s Caltrans,” said Lalloway, adding that he can’t support Spitzer’s request given the delays it would cause.

Spitzer took another shot at Caltrans.

“That’s an inappropriate threat that was thrown out there,” Spitzer said of Chamberlain.

Chamberlain took exception to Spitzer’s claims.

“I don’t appreciate some accusations being slung at Caltrans when this project has been moving forward cooperatively” over the last decade, said Chamberlain.

Supporters of the high-occupancy toll lanes say the tolls would likely only apply to cars with only a single person inside, allowing carpools to have free access like they currently do.

It would be the fastest way to move people and goods on the freeway, they add.

Opponents, meanwhile, say the so-called “Lexus lanes” would violate the trust of voters because it would be enabled by a freeway widening using hundreds of millions of dollars from the county’s half-percent sales tax for transportation.

They argued that any additional lanes beyond the one free lane envisioned by M2 should get major financing from Caltrans.

As for where things go from here, the transportation board’s majority said their energy was best focused, among other issues, on ensuring Caltrans keeps toll lanes free for cars with two or more people inside.

Ensuring the toll revenue is spent locally was another issue board members were keen on pursuing.

It’s a position that largely mirrors that of the Orange County Business Council, the most prominent business advocacy group in county politics.

“If we want to have a conversation with them about what is done with this revenue, we kind of have to talk nice,” said board member Michael Hennessey.

Update: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that board member Matthew Harper voted against the current approach and indicated that Tom Tait supported it. We regret the error.

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

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