Local officials Monday accused California’s transportation agency of taking advantage of Orange County voters by trying to use hundreds of millions of local dollars to widen the 405 freeway, but then install state-owned toll lanes, which are strongly opposed by some blocs of voters.
Westminster City Councilwoman Diana Carey, who represents cities along the freeway in northwest Orange County, told a meeting of the Orange County Transportation Authority that voters never were told before they approved a half-percent county sales tax in 2006 that funds from the road construction ballot measure might be used to help build controversial freeway toll lanes.
“It is unequivocally not what the voters passed for the improvement of the I-405,” said Carey, referring to ballot Measure M2. Toll lanes, she said, would be “not only violating the spirit of M2, but we will never get another transportation tax passed in this county.”
Carey was one of several opponents who spoke against Caltrans’ newly-announced plan to create two Orange County toll lanes on the 405 by eventually adding another lane in each direction and converting the existing carpool lane into a toll lane.
“I got calls from people who want to rescind M2 now, they’re so angry about it,” Carey added.
Critics say the so-called “Lexus lanes” only significantly ease traffic for those who can afford to pay the tolls. Those who can’t afford it would still be stuck in traffic.
The project applies to the stretch of the 405 between State Route 73 in Costa Mesa and Interstate 605 at the county line.
Caltrans, meanwhile, says the toll lanes – or “managed lanes,” as it prefers to call them – would speed travel times for all drivers, including those in free lanes.
In their news releases last week, Caltrans didn’t estimate how much travel times would speed up in the first few years after converting the existing carpool land and adding toll lanes.
But more than a quarter century from now, in 2040, Caltrans predicted drive times in non-toll lanes would be cut nearly in half, from 57 minutes to 29 minutes.
“The department endeavors to maximize people throughput,” said Ryan Chamberlain, the Orange County director for Caltrans.
In reaction to the state decision, opponents turned to social media, starting a Facebook page, “SAY NO to the Orange County 405 Toll Lanes,” to organize their pushback, and have raised the possibility of a lawsuit.
“This will have to be fought in court,” declared Orange Juice blogger Vern Nelson in a Monday post. He called for the creation of a nonprofit Orange County Drivers’ Union to serve as a plaintiff.
A backdrop to the toll lanes issue is declining state and federal money for freeway and road projects.
The federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, last increased in 1993, hasn’t risen with inflation, and improved fuel efficiency has also affected revenues. Sacramento also diverts gas tax funds for other purposes than freeway and road improvements, said Huntington Beach Mayor Matt Harper, an OCTA director and a candidate for the 74th Assembly seat.
Meanwhile, California’s highway system is facing about a $6 billion annual funding gap for maintenance, according to Caltrans.
Those financial stresses are what is behind the toll lane proposal, according to Supervisor Pat Bates, who is also board member at the county transportation agency, known as OCTA.
“The honesty here is that Caltrans needs money to go forward with building and maintaining our infrastructure. And this appeared because of the success of the 91 [toll lanes] and certainly the 241 [toll road] as a way to generate revenues for our infrastructure,” said Bates.
“Let’s be honest about it.”
But Chamberlain, the local director for Caltrans, stressed that the toll lane effort has nothing to do with revenue.
“I want to make it clear: the department’s perspective is not about generating revenue. It hasn’t been from the beginning,” said Chamberlain. “It’s about managing congestion, it’s about trip reliability and it’s about choice.”
But Bates said a workable discussion can’t take place until Caltrans admits its true intent.
“When the public understands, like they did when we got M2 passed, that this is value added – another additional tax, but with it we’re getting something – then we can move forward together,” said Bates, a candidate for the state Senate.
“I think it is just so stupid, frankly, to proceed down this road without everyone understanding what we’re trying to accomplish and how we meet everyone’s goals,” she added. “Be honest about what we’re trying to accomplish, and then maybe we can find a solution.”
Seal Beach resident Schelly Sustarsic, one of several county residents to speak – or try to – said the recent addition of toll lanes to Interstate 110 in Los Angeles County didn’t improve traffic in free lanes.
“Traffic will back up in the general purpose lanes, making congestion and air quality worse for our locals,” said Sustarsic. Freeway drivers, she added, would take side streets and cause “gridlock for our local drivers.”
As public comments wrapped up, a man stood at the microphone and asked to speak, saying he didn’t know he had to submit a request card before comments started.
OCTA Chairman Shawn Nelson turned him down.
“No sir, we have protocol and it is what it is”, said Nelson, who in addition to be being a county supervisor is a lawyer.
However, OCTA does not have a policy requiring speakers to fill out a card, spokesman Joel Zlotnik confirmed. Speakers at public meetings in California also cannot be required to identify themselves.
Separately, a proposed state law, AB-194, would outlaw advanced notice requirements for public commenters, according to Terry Francke, general counsel for the open government group Californians Aware.
OCTA board member Gary Miller, who opposes the toll lanes, asked Nelson to schedule a future discussion at OCTA of the toll lanes issue.
“That’s a discussion we have to have,” said Miller, who is also a Seal Beach councilman.
Nelson wasn’t interested, saying it’s a state issue.
“There’s really no reason to agendize that issue,” said Nelson.
“We can agendize anything we want but we’re not the state Assembly, or the state Senate,” he added. “Caltrans doesn’t have any money to do this. They don’t have a plan to do this.”
Transportation board member John Moorlach also chimed in, saying he’s “having a little difficulty with the ethics” of OCTA spending $1.3 billion to widen the freeway and then see toll lanes put in.
Nelson reiterated his point.
“A gripe session isn’t productive, [and] it ain’t gonna do anything,” he said, continuing to point to the issue as a state responsibility.
After another OCTA board member, Janet Nguyen, joined the calls for a discussion, Nelson agreed to ask Caltrans to present their vision for toll lanes. Nguyen, of Garden Grove, is running for the state Senate.
In response, Chamberlain said more details about the plans would need to be in place before he gives a presentation.
Harper, meanwhile, argued after the meeting that allowing toll lanes would make it politically easier for Caltrans to eventually convert more free lanes into toll lanes.
“I don’t want to see the whole entire 405 be a toll road,” said Harper.
At the same time, Nelson and Harper say OCTA has few cards to play in trying to prevent toll lanes on local freeways, which are owned by Caltrans.
”It’s beyond us what Caltrans does with its road,” said Nelson.
Carey, meanwhile, said OCTA does have a card to play – its approval of local M2 funds for the freeway expansion effort.
“Caltrans may be trying to compel us to put toll lanes on the 405…but they cannot compel the OCTA board to spend our infrastructure money to support their projects,” Carey told board members.