Residents stress the ‘free’ in freeway
WESTMINSTER — They came en masse under the mantra of keeping the freeways free.
More than 150 people crowded Westminster’s Civic Center on Tuesday night to formally voice their opposition to any toll roads within a 14-mile portion of the 405 Freeway, from the 73 Freeway in Costa Mesa to the 605 Freeway outside Rossmoor.
Representatives from communities nearby and along the busy thoroughfare — Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach, Irvine, Westminster, Seal Beach, Los Alamitos, Rossmoor and Fountain Valley — were in universal opposition to the toll option, officially called Alternative 3 by the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA).
The estimated $1.47-billion project would add one general-purpose and one toll lane in each direction, plus convert the existing carpool lane on both sides of the freeway to a toll lane within most of the 14-mile stretch.
Area politicians and residents said they have long favored either the $1.25-billion Alternative 1, which would add one general-purpose lane in each direction, or the $1.35-billion Alternative 2, which would add two general-purpose lanes in each direction.
Last year, Costa Mesa officials said they favored Alternative 2.
All three alternatives would involve reconstructing the bridges over the 405 along the affected route. The proposals have also been changed and pared down slightly; Alternative 3 was pegged at $1.7 billion last year.
Organizers said representatives from the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and OCTA were invited to the town hall meeting but did not attend.
“I think it’s pretty clear to the community what’s at stake here,” said Costa Mesa Mayor Jim Righeimer. “What’s at stake is the future of Orange County with regards to how we move in this county.”
Righeimer called the toll roads “Lexus lanes” — as in feasible only for the super-rich — and said if they’re added to the 405, they would pave the way for toll roads elsewhere in Orange County, such as on the 5 Freeway.
“We may be the first ones to do it,” Righeimer said, “but we’re not gonna be the last.”
The 405 toll road debate has recently resurfaced. In October 2012, OCTA’s board recommended Alternative 1, though recently enacted federal legislation affecting the minimum traveling speeds within carpool lanes has brought the issue to light again.
Costa Mesa officials, who are once again exploring their legal options to fight toll roads, have surmised that Caltrans could override the OCTA’s decision and put in toll lanes, which would theoretically keep traffic flowing to help meet federal standards.
That scenario was not lost on former state Assemblyman Jose Solorio (D-Anaheim), who called the resurrected idea reminiscent of something on the “The Walking Dead” TV show.
Huntington Beach Mayor Connie Boardman said Orange County residents are already paying taxes for their roads via gasoline purchases and Measure M, a voter-approved, half-cent sales tax for transportation projects.
“This would be a tax on a tax on a tax,” she said.
County Supervisor John Moorlach, a Costa Mesa resident, called the saga “a whole new definition to the term highway robbery.”
Past improvements to other county freeways didn’t require tolls, Moorlach noted.
“This is being done to us,” he said. “It’s not being done with us.”
Seal Beach Mayor Gary A. Miller said residents in Garden Grove, Huntington Beach and Westminster aren’t likely to pay a $4 toll just to cross into nearby Los Angeles County. They would take surface streets instead, he said.
“Our local streets are going to be very congested if this option is passed,” Miller said.
Fountain Valley Councilman John Collins called the tolls “an insult to the voters” who renewed Measure M in 2006, which never proposed adding toll roads.
Collins also questioned where the toll funds would go to.
“I have never seen a good answer to that question,” he said. “Is it guaranteed to come to us, or is it open to be taken later on?”
Adolfo Ozaeta, a traffic engineer for Westminster, said 405 toll roads were studied as early as 2003. The contentious Alternative 3 surfaced in 2009, he said.
Tolls could peak at $9.91 for northbound trips and $6.11 for southbound trips, according to OCTA projections.
The OCTA is scheduled to discuss the 405 plans on Nov. 8 at its headquarters in Orange.