Orange County transportation officials are kicking off construction on a $1.9 billion expansion of the Interstate 405 San Diego Freeway between Costa Mesa and the county’s border with Los Angeles, one of the nation’s busiest interstate highway sections.
The 405 expansion will be the most expensive highway project ever undertaken by the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) and the second most expensive in state history.
The expansion will add one general purpose lane in both directions and construct an additional lane, which will combine with the existing carpool lane to create the toll lanes.
Officials at the Transportation Authority say the expansion will cut travel times during congested morning and afternoon rush hours. The 16-mile stretch, between State Route 73 and the I-605, goes through Costa Mesa, Fountain Valley, Westminster and Seal Beach.
Traveling northbound in the afternoon, it currently takes 54 minutes in regular lanes and 51 minutes in the carpool lanes to travel the 16 miles, said OCTA spokesman Joel Zlotnik. When traffic flows freely, it only takes 16 minutes.
Transportation officials said by 2040, traffic is expected to grow by 30 percent and travel times would rise to more than 2 hours without the expansion project.
“With the project, the estimate is about 30 minutes in the regular lanes and 15 minutes in the express lanes,” said Zlotnik.
When the 405 toll lanes, advertised by OCTA with the euphemism 405 “Express Lanes,” are open, two-person carpools will pay a toll during peak hours, while carpools of three or more people can use the lanes without charge. After the first three and a half years of operation, two-person carpools will pay a toll at all hours.
Although the tolls are not finalized, they are likely to range from $2.13 to $9.99 in 2015 dollars, said Zlotnik. The average toll traveling northbound is estimated at $6.15 and $5.11 for drivers going southbound.
The tolls will go toward paying a $629 million loan funding the expansion. Any leftover toll revenue would go toward maintaining the freeway or other transportation improvements along the corridor.
Another $1.1 million will come from Measure M2 sales tax funds, while $90 million comes from the state and $46 million from the federal government. Measure M2 is a half-cent sales tax passed by voters in 2006.
Construction, led by OHL USA and Astaldi Construction, is expected to take five years.
For the duration of the project, freeway lanes will remain open during the day and any lane closures will happen at night between 10 pm and 5 am, said Zlotnik.
Officials currently do not have a construction schedule outlining when and where construction will occur over the next year. More information will be available in several weeks, said Zlotnik.
“Weather permitting, more visible construction activities will commence in the spring with restriping portions of the freeway and setting up concrete barriers on the outside of the freeway to protect work areas for activities such as tree removals and grading,” said Zlotnik. “Heavier construction activities, such as the first paving operations and bridge demolition activities, are expected to commence in the summer.”
The project involves reconstructing 18 bridges, five of which will close during construction: Ward Street, Talbert Avenue, Bushard Street, Edinger Avenue and McFadden Avenue.
Zlotnik said drivers can follow an online interactive map to track construction of the project and recommended detours.
The agency also is working with a mobile navigation app, Waze, to encourage drivers to use suggested detours.
“There have been times that Waze has routed people through city streets, which is a problem for cities,” said Zlotnik. Instead, drivers using the app will be suggested OCTA-approved detours ahead of other options.
Controversy and Opposition
The road leading up to Friday’s groundbreaking ceremony has often been contentious.
The discussion of toll lanes sparked fervent opposition from many elected officials, who called the toll a “double tax” on residents on top of Measure M2. Measure M2 did not mention using the funds for toll roads.
Those officials favored an alternative that would widen the freeway by two lanes and keep existing the carpool lanes intact.
The OCTA board voted in 2012 and again in 2013 to support another expansion option, which would have added one regular lane in each direction. But in 2014, Caltrans said it would move forward with its own toll road project on the 405, citing a federal law that required them to address poor performance of the carpool lanes.
Following the state’s decision, OCTA voted in April 2015 to go with the 405 expansion plans as they look today – the addition of one regular lane and converting carpool lanes into toll lanes.
“This was done in order to maintain local control and to avoid having two construction projects that would be timed differently from impacting drivers on the 405 and residents in the surrounding communities,” said Zlotnik.
Two cities, Long Beach and Seal Beach, also filed lawsuits against OCTA over who will pay for the cost of increased traffic on city streets. Long Beach received a $13 million settlement from Caltrans and OCTA late last year, while the case with Seal Beach remains unresolved.
The Transportation Authority also has separate agreements to reimburse the cities of Costa Mesa, Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach and Westminster for the cost of city services related to the 405 expansion.
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