The intense battle over whether to install toll lanes on the Interstate 405 freeway is set for another round Dec. 9 after transportation officials delayed their vote by a month amid public outcry and key unresolved questions.
At the Nov. 8 meeting of the Orange County Transportation Authority board, dozens of residents and officials railed against the proposal and claimed the public’s trust is being violated.
“Tolling on top of the taxing was not part of the deal,” said Fountain Valley Councilman John Collins, referring to Measure M, the county’s half-cent sales tax for transportation.
“It’s an insult to those people who voted for [Measure] M2 to put this on.”
The OCTA board ultimately postponed its vote on the issue to Dec. 9. The delay was approved 15-0, with directors Miguel Pulido and Shawn Nelson not present.
Officials and residents alike issued a relentless stream of criticism.
“I’m just frustrated, as an elected official in this county, that I’m being rushed to make a decision,” said Director Todd Spitzer, calling the choice a “monumental” one.
He criticized what he said was a lack of any statewide policy on how to handle a new federal mandate to keep carpool lanes flowing, which is being cited as a main reason for the toll lanes.
Director John Moorlach directed some of his criticism at OCTA itself.
“We don’t even have a vision yet” of what toll lanes would look like, said Moorlach. “Shame on OCTA for waiting so long.”
Others said their trust in government is being shaken.
“I’m losing faith in my governing officials,” said a woman who identified herself as Anita. “For those who are making ends meet and the working poor, this is devastating.”
One of the most intense moments came at the beginning of public comments when the board chairman tried to block residents from speaking about the policy issues.
Chairman Greg Winterbottom told speakers they could talk only about the delay of the vote, not how they felt about the toll lanes issue overall.
“I would prefer not to hear other issues. I’m going to limit to” the motion to delay, said Winterbottom, who ironically has been the public member appointed to the OCTA board for the last 20 years.
That didn’t fly with Moorlach.
“I don’t think it’s fair to make it so narrow,” Moorlach said.
Winterbottom stuck by his position. “Please. We’ve heard this over and over and over. We know what they’re going to say,” Winterbottom said.
He ultimately backed down when the other board members threatened to overrule him.
Additionally, those speech restrictions could have run afoul of the state’s open meetings law, the Ralph M. Brown Act, which protects the public’s right to address government.
“After what I’ve seen today, I’ve been disgusted by the attitude that’s been taken by the chairman of this board,” said Costa Mesa Mayor Jim Righeimer, who also attacked a letter to the editor Winterbottom wrote to The Orange County Register.
Righeimer charged that Winterbottom’s letter was misleading by touting that toll lanes would speed up the general lanes when in fact a nontoll option, Alternative 2, would make a commute even faster.
“I’m disgusted, absolutely disgusted,” said Righeimer, calling the letter “garbage.”
Most OCTA board members appear to support the idea of toll lanes but want to find a way to get the support from local cities that are apparently angling to sue and make sure the toll money stays locally.
“We need to have all of these questions answered,” said Director Jeff Lalloway. “I think to approve [toll lanes] today would be getting the cart before the horse.”
Meanwhile, speakers from the Orange County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Asian Business Association of Orange County supported the toll lanes.
It would be “dealing with current problem with current dollars, rather than kicking the can down the road,” said Fountain Valley lawyer Kerry Osaki.
Another local businessman said that expanding traffic periods are shrinking his traveling consultants’ “window of commerce” and that toll lanes are a fact-based solution.
Faced with pressure from Caltrans, OCTA board members also showed interest in gathering representatives of other Southern California counties to talk through how best to meet the new federal mandate on carpool lane speed.
“They’re going to be next. This is inevitable,” Spitzer said of pressure to build toll lanes.
Speaking to a broader issue, Director Miguel Pulido said Orange County “gets beat up” across the state when it comes to funding transportation.
The San Francisco Bay Area is getting an expensive new bridge because they “speak up” and “advocate on their behalf,” he said, adding that money generated in Orange County should stay in Orange County.
Pulido ended up leaving the meeting early without explanation.
Some have even suggested that officials instead invest in rapid transit buses or light rail as a way to lighten traffic on I-405.
“We can’t keep widening these freeways ad nauseum,” said former Seal Beach Mayor Patty Campbell.
“You’re going to create a parking lot at the LA-Orange County line,” she said.
In a move that brought cautionary warnings from staff, Moorlach suggested that his colleagues take a year to decide on whether to install toll lanes.
That would give time, Moorlach said, for OCTA to work with Caltrans on a “complete vision” for toll lane policies, such as where the money would go.
The idea of a year-long delay from conservative Moorlach gained an endorsement from liberal blogger Vern Nelson.
State transportation officials, meanwhile, warn that delays into next year could put federal funds at risk.
The Federal Highways Administration wants to see that California is proactive in speeding up carpool lanes to 45 miles per hour 90 percent of the time, said Caltrans District 12 Director Ryan Chamberlain.
“Continuing to study or plan will not likely meet their expectations,” said Chamberlain.
Congressman Alan Lowenthal, D-Garden Grove, meanwhile said that other strategies are available to meet the federal mandate, like increasing the carpool lane’s occupancy requirement or adding more general lanes.
And former state Sen. Jose Solorio, D-Santa Ana, has described the mandate as a “technicality” that could be fixed through legislation.
Another sticking point is where the toll money would go, which is far from decided. The main battle is between using it to improve local cities’ roads or cover Caltrans’ budget hole.
“Who is in line? Who gets funded first?” asked Spitzer.
“You’ve got to know these deal points before you can move forward.”
The monumental size of the proposed project — $1.5 billion — was not lost on observers.
OCTA CEO Darrell Johnson called it OCTA’s single biggest and most complicated transportation project since the widening of Interstate 5.
Board members showed their appreciation for a meeting Nov. 6 with Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty, where he showed interest in collaborating.
In the background of the debate is the issue of maintenance money for Caltrans, which says it can’t afford on its own to keep freeways up to par.
Opponents also took aim yet again at a key argument for the toll lanes: that Caltrans would just install them anyway.
“I don’t think that’s really true, at least based on what I heard in that meeting” with Dougherty,” said Director Gary Miller.
The Caltrans director said his agency wouldn’t go forward without the agreement of OCTA, according to Miller.
Among the toll policies to be considered are whether tolls should be peak or off-peak, whether two or three occupants would allow carpools to ride for free and whether drivers can freely move in and out of toll lanes.
Others spoke to a more general critique that Southern California’s spread-out, carcentric approach to city planning plays a big role in the ever growing traffic problems.
“We are now embracing density on top of that sprawl, creating claustrophobic constraints and automotive constipation,” said Irvine resident T.R. Black.
“We simply don’t possess the ability to enjoy infinite growth on a finite planet.”
As for the toll lane idea, Costa Mesa resident Ted Bischak said his commute to Los Angeles was ruined by the new toll lanes on the Interstate 110 freeway, despite being able to use them for free because he has a natural gas car.
“It’s been fine until all hell broke loose when it was converted to a toll lane,” said Bischak, adding that he now has to figure out how to get out of the toll lane.
“It doesn’t work. What you’re proposing doesn’t work,” said Bischak.
OCTA staff, meanwhile, urged board members to make a decision quickly.
“There are cost implications,” said Johnson, the CEO, who has put the figure at $40 million extra per year, a little less than 3 percent of the project.
But local officials say they won’t back down, warning that OCTA’s next meeting on the issue Dec. 9 will bring just as much pushback, if not more.
“This room will be packed 30 days from now,” said Righeimer.
And while OCTA board members look to give local cities a cut of the toll money, some could still end up fighting their battle regardless.
“You’re not going to be able to buy us off with improvements,” said Westminster Councilwoman Diana Carey.