OCTA approves study of 405 widening project

A proposal to add high-occupancy toll (H.O.T.) lanes to the San Diego (405) Freeway in Orange County took a step forward this week when the board of the Orange County Transportation Authority approved further environmental and engineering study of the project.

A report presented to the board found that the idea is financially viable and would help pay for the cost of the freeway expansion, which could cost as much as $2.2 billion. The board on Monday decided to explore the option more fully.

The proposal to add one general-purpose lane and one H.O.T. lane in each direction on the 405 between the 73 and the 605 freeways is one of several options being explored. There is already one high-occupancy vehicle lane in each direction that would be converted into a H.O.T. lane, so it would create a total of two express H.O.T. lanes in each direction.

H.O.T. lanes are like traditional HOV lanes but are also open to those willing to pay a toll.

Second District Supervisor John Moorlach, an OCTA board member, encouraged the board to move ahead with plans to add two lanes and abandon less ambitious alternatives under consideration, such as adding only one lane in each direction.

“Why don’t we just focus on (this) and start expediting this project?” Moorlach said. “Why (mess) with one lane? … Why not get moving instead of studying this thing to death?”

Other board members were more skeptical and said that all the proposals should be studied further.

Adding two express lanes in each direction would significantly ease rush-hour traffic on the 405 and allow H.O.T.-lane traffic to move at 65 mph, the report found.

About $600 million in funding for the 405 expansion is available from Measure M2 – a half-cent county sales tax that pays for transportation improvements – but that is far less than is needed for even the most modest expansion currently being considered.

Tolls generated from the H.O.T. lanes would offset the difference and fully fund the project if the lanes were restricted to toll payers and vehicles with three or more passengers, according to the OCTA report.

The cheapest option being explored is to add one general-purpose lane in each direction, which would cost $1.7 billion but would generate no revenue. The most expensive is to add two express lanes in each direction and charge tolls, which would cost $2.2 billion but would generate $197 million annually – enough to support the full cost of the project.

The freeway expansion is tentatively slated to begin in 2016.