A coalition of Orange County city officials who oppose state plans to put toll lanes on the I-405 freeway announced a competing proposal Thursday night that calls for adding two toll-free lanes in each direction.

At a forum in Costa Mesa, city officials lambasted the state transportation agency, Caltrans, as being out-of-touch with local opposition and called on residents to advocate for the alternative plan.

“We need to have our proposal looked at,” Westminster Councilwoman Diana Carey said before a crowd of about 80 officials and residents.

The proposal by Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa, Westminster, Fountain Valley, Los Alamitos and Seal Beach officials calls for adding one general-purpose and one carpool lane to each direction of the highly congested 405 through those cities.

Local officials asked residents and officials to show up and speak at two upcoming Orange County Transportation Authority meetings: the Sept. 15 Regional Planning and Highways Committee meeting and the Sept. 22 full board meeting.

“We are all not voiceless in this situation,” said Huntington Beach Mayor Matt Harper, who is also running for state Assembly. “I think, with persistence, that we can keep our freeways free.”

Caltrans officials attended the forum and said they were listening closely to the concerns, but didn’t appear to back away from their plans for toll lanes on the 405.

However, the specifics of how toll lanes would work seemed open for discussion.

“We are here to listen. We are here to continue to work with all of you on real tough issues on how to move forward with this project,” said Ryan Chamberlain, the Orange County director for Caltrans.

The toll lanes plan is driven by a desire to speed up travel times, he said, not raising revenue.

“This project will get people, goods and vehicles moving faster. That’s the bottom line,” said Chamberlain. “This truly is a sustainable transportation decision.”

However, Caltrans has not released statistics showing how quickly traffic would move in the first few years.

Their statistics are for the year 2040.

When Caltrans proposed toll lanes on Interstate 405 last fall, the backlash was fierce. Under the toll lane plan, those who can afford it can pay a toll and avoid traffic jams while those who can’t afford it must stay in traffic.

Numerous elected officials and business representatives protested, calling the proposal – among other things – a violation of a promise to voters for Measure M2, the county’s half-percent sales tax for transportation upgrades.

Under that plan, OCTA was proposing widening the state’s 405 freeway to add a general traffic lane in each direction.

Many of the criticisms, which have brought together officials and residents from across the political spectrum, were on display at Thursday’s forum.

“The funding mechanism put in place for these lanes was to tax the people,” Seal Beach Mayor Ellery Deaton told Caltrans officials.

“You taxed my seniors, you taxed my people trying to raise families,” she added. “And we gave you $1.3 billion and now you want to tax us again to drive on the roads.”

Deaton said she has told local OCTA officials, to “get it in writing from the state – no toll roads – before you take our $1.3 billion and hand it over.”

Local residents also spoke against the proposal.

Joel Block, a Democratic candidate for the 72nd Assembly District, noted the issue has united many liberals and conservatives.

“We’re pretty much all in agreement on this issue. So the question is ‘why are we still at this point?’ Because this level of agreement usually doesn’t exist,” said Block.

“When the people speak, the government needs to listen. Otherwise democracy starts breaking down and people lose hope” in their elected leaders, he added.

Several elected officials also spoke out against the toll lane proposal, including, Assemblyman Allan Mansoor (R-Costa Mesa), Assemblyman Don Wagner (R-Tustin), Costa Mesa Mayor Jim Righeimer, Irvine Councilwoman Beth Krom, community college trustee Jose Solorio and representatives of county Supervisor Janet Nguyen and Congressman Alan Lowenthal (D-Westminster). 

A representative from the Automobile Club of Southern California said the organization supports the toll lanes proposal, and a representative of the Orange County Business Council urged local officials to negotiate a better toll lane financial deal with Caltrans, among other assurances.

State officials, meanwhile, said they were trying to make the toll lane fees only apply to cars with one occupant, making the toll lanes free for carpools.

“Caltrans, top to bottom, is looking at innovative ways to make this happen,” said Chamberlain.

Installing toll lanes “will improve the nations’s most heavily-congested corridor,” he added, noting that section of freeway is the busiest in the entire United States.

Local officials, however, were suspicious that, even if it’s put in place from the beginning, the “2-plus” occupants proposal wouldn’t last.

Westminster’s Carey said OCTA figures show 2-plus toll lanes don’t meet federal high-occupancy lane requirements and fail to generate enough revenue to justify the lanes’ cost.

She alleged Caltrans would allow 2-plus for a while, then say the free lanes weren’t meeting federal rules and raise the occupancy requirements for using the lanes for free.

“Do not be fooled on this,” Carey warned.

Criticism also centered on Caltrans’ projections that toll lanes are the best option to speed up traffic in adjacent free lanes.

The agency’s publicly-released estimates are for the year 2040, about a quarter-century after the lanes are built.

“When’s the last time the State of California projected a budget” beyond a couple of years, asked Rossmoor resident Rich Butterfield.

Earlier on Thursday, Voice of OC asked a Caltrans spokesman if Caltrans has estimated travel times for the first few years after the toll lanes are installed.

The spokesman, David Richardson, said after the forum that he would respond on Friday.

In response to questions last month about how the 2040 estimates were calculated, OCTA officials provided a summary explanation.

(Click here to read the explanation of the travel time calculations.)

City engineers, meanwhile, said they’ve had little luck getting the underlying calculations behind Caltrans’ travel time claims.

The engineers “have had a very hard time” getting access to that information, said Ernesto Munoz, public services director for Costa Mesa. It’s been “very frustrating,” he added.

Both Munoz and Seal Beach’s public works director, Sean Crumby, said they had not yet seen the explanation provided to Voice of OC.

“The studies have to be shared with our engineers,” said Seal Beach Councilman Gary Miller, who sits on the OCTA board. “OCTA has really not shared those.”

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

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