400 celebrate groundbreaking for 405 Freeway expansion project


More than 400 guests celebrated the Orange County Transportation Authority’s groundbreaking for a $1.9-billion 405 Freeway expansion project during an elaborate event Friday in Costa Mesa.

A portion of the IKEA parking lot, which abuts the 405’s Susan Street offramp, was used for the ceremony, which featured guitarist Isaiah Mauga singing the national anthem, plus food trucks, two giant tents, centerpieces with flowers and toy trucks, and custom T-shirts, pens and coffee mugs promoting the project.

In one corner, oversize white letters reading “#405Improvement” made for a popular photo spot.

Dozens of federal, state and local officials attended the groundbreaking, including U.S. Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa), Mimi Walters (R-Irvine) and Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach). State Assemblyman Matthew Harper (R-Huntington Beach) and Costa Mesa Mayor Sandy Genis also were present, along with city council members from Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Fountain Valley and Westminster.

The project will affect the 16-mile portion of the 405 between the 73 Freeway in Costa Mesa and the 605 Freeway near Rossmoor. It is expected to be completed in 2023.

The plan includes a new general-purpose lane and a new “express” toll lane in both directions. The existing carpool lane in each direction will be converted to a second toll lane.

The express lanes will be operated like those on the 91 Freeway. In 2015, OCTA was expecting the tolls to range from $2.13 to $9.99, depending on the time, day of the week and direction of travel.

OCTA spokesman Joel Zlotnik said Friday that the tolls will be adjusted when the express lanes open in 2023.

The 405 project also will include widening or replacing nearly 20 bridges and renovating various freeway ramps.

The endeavor, which officials call the largest project under construction in California, has taken 15 years of planning.

Transportation officials say it is needed to keep up with increasing demand on the busy 405.

Rohrabacher called the project “what America is all about.” He praised the combination of tolls and state, local and federal tax dollars funding it.

“This truly is a team effort,” Lowenthal said. “Everybody is looking at this project nationwide and statewide.”

The plan faced years of fierce debate before Friday’s celebration. Residents and leaders from cities along the 405, including Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley, opposed the toll option. Community meetings about the topic were packed. Two cities filed lawsuits.

Critics dubbed the express lanes “Lexus lanes” in the belief that they would be affordable only to the rich. Opponents called the tolls a form of double taxation because Orange County voters already had approved a half-cent sales tax, Measure M2, in 2006 toward transportation projects.

Despite objections from local leaders and the OCTA board, the California Department of Transportation announced in 2014 that it would move forward with the toll option. By the following year, OCTA had agreed to go with the plan.

OCTA spokesman Eric Carpenter said Friday that the project could begin this spring with re-striping of the freeway and setting up concrete barriers. Though the complete construction schedule is still being set, paving and bridge demolition are scheduled to start this summer, he said.

Twitter: @BradleyZint