By Paul Anderson
City News Service
The Orange County Transportation Authority board Monday rejected a proposal to widen the San Diego (405) Freeway at Brookhurst Street by one lane, while approving further study of toll lanes on the freeway from the Los Angeles County border to the San Joaquin Hills (73) Freeway.
It appears that Caltrans, which has final say over toll lanes on the 405 Freeway, is aiming to make motorists pay, so a majority of the OCTA board members want to make sure they're not left out of the revenue stream.
"The state is going to start converting (high occupancy vehicle) lanes to toll lanes," said Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman Shawn Nelson, who also serves on the OCTA board. "And whether we think it's fair or not, Orange County is the target."
That's largely because Orange County already has a plan to add free lanes in each direction as part of an existing project through Measure M, and Caltrans wants the county to address congestion in the carpool lanes, Nelson said.
"Sacramento, generally speaking, has a strong dislike for Orange County and would love to tune us up by implementing paid lanes and taking the cash," Nelson said, adding that it's important OCTA has a plan for county- managed toll lanes.
Over the next two months, OCTA, Caltrans and Transportation Corridor Agency officials will look at a variety of tolling policies and how the revenue could be spent in the corridor cities to improve traffic in places such as Huntington Beach and Seal Beach where officials object to the toll lanes.
One proposal is to keep the carpool lanes free for vehicles with three or more occupants.
Nelson sympathized with fellow OCTA board members Matthew Harper, Gary Miller, John Moorlach and Janet Nguyen, who today voiced opposition to a toll lane.
"Of course we don't want to toll anything," Nelson said.
But even though those representatives lost the argument, Nelson said it will be important to get their feedback on the tolling policies and how to spend the revenue.
"The money's got to be spent in the corridor," Nelson said. "And, at the end of the day, the most important people in the room talking about how to spend the money are the people who were the 'no' votes."
If OCTA doesn't work with Caltrans, the county agency risks letting the state take the toll revenue earned locally and spending it elsewhere, Nelson said.
"The board majority thinks if it's coming anyway, let's try to get in front of it," Moorlach said. "But I'm of the mindset that if it's coming anyway, then why not fight it?"
Moorlach, Miller, Harper and Nguyen favored a plan to add one lane in each direction on top of the already planned ones on the 405 north from Brookhurst to Valley View streets and southbound from the Seal Beach Boulevard on-ramp to Brookhurst Street.
Caltrans officials say that plan would bottleneck traffic at the West County connector at the Garden Grove (22) Freeway and have rejected that proposal.
"It's no longer a collaboration," Moorlach said of working with Caltrans. "It's bureaucrats in Sacramento telling (the county) what to do. It's a shame, but it seems to be the paradigm of late. Sacramento's grabbing everything they can."
County officials have six months to come up with a plan to address the congestion in the carpool lanes, because federal officials are threatening to withdraw funding in any state where the average speed in those lanes dips below 45 mph at least 90 percent of the time.
Some OCTA board members doubt a study that shows Orange County falls below the federal standard, contending the traffic counts are based calculations in 2011 with systems that are unreliable.
Estimates on tolls could be about $5 southbound and $6 northbound from the 73 in Costa Mesa to the San Gabriel (605) Freeway, which includes the busiest stretch of freeway in the country with more than 370,000 cars a day, said Joel Zlotnik of OCTA.
The project could cost between $1.25 billion to $1.47 billion, Zlotnik said. Officials estimate that high-occupancy toll lanes could generate $1.5 billion, after paying for operations and maintenance, over the next 30 years that could be spent on improving traffic around the freeway in the corridor cities.
Nelson said some of those improvements could include more rail or intersection upgrades.
OCTA officials will return to the board in November with a variety of tolling scenarios. Caltrans officials will make a final decision by year's end with an environmental impact report due in May of next year.
Construction could begin in 2015 and finish by 2019 or 2020, Zlotnik said.