Costa Mesa residents protest freeway widening proposal

Costa Mesa residents jammed an Orange County Transportation Authority informational meeting this week, saying they had strong concerns about widening the San Diego (405) Freeway for the second time in a decade and the possibility of proposed toll lanes.

In turn, transportation officials argued that such improvements were necessary to keep from pushing future traffic congestion south to Costa Mesa and Newport Beach.

Three years ago, Costa Mesa commuters drove around a $7-million project to rebuild the Fairview Road bridge, and years before that, acquiesced to a $50-million project on the freeway that took more than three years to complete.

Standing before more than 120 community members at the meeting on the Orange Coast College campus, OCTA and engineering consultants asked how residents felt about another go.

The answer: a resounding no.

"How dare you just throw away $7 million," local resident Patrick Goeser said to Kevin Haboian, senior vice president of Parsons Corp. and project manager of the proposed widening project.

One of the residents' main criticisms of OCTA and the California Department of Transportation's pitch for widening the 405 south of the San Gabriel (605) Freeway to the Corona del Mar (73) Freeway has been the necessity to demolish and rebuild the Fairview overpass.

"To be so wasteful, it's sort of insulting to the Costa Mesa community to tear down a bridge we just put up," said City Councilwoman Wendy Leece. "It's stupid."

Mayor Eric Bever also wrote a letter that urged reconsideration.

The catch, at least for state officials, appears to be that the option most affecting Costa Mesa — dubbed Alternative 3 on OCTA's website — is also the one that would generate the most revenue to help cover the costs of improvements.

Coming in a $1.7 billion, it's the most expensive of OCTA's three proposed projects. The agency estimated that it could generate an estimated $400 million through tolls.

Alternative 3 would add one general-purpose lane, and one additional high-occupancy vehicle lane, from the 73 to the 605. However, the carpool lanes would be converted into express lanes similar to the Riverside (91) Freeway, and drivers would need a transponder for them.

Solo drivers and those with a single passenger would be charged a higher rate than a vehicle carrying three people.

Officials said drivers would have a switch on their transponders to declare the number of passengers they have, and an OCTA worker would periodically be stationed along the freeway to look at cars as they zip by to verify whether drivers are telling the truth.

The only connection to the express lanes south of Magnolia Street would be for drivers to get on the northbound 405 at Bristol Street, or south of there, and cut across the freeway to get to the carpool lane before it changes to an express road.

The express lane price would adjust periodically to keep the lanes flowing. With traffic projected to increase 35% to 40% by 2040, Alternative 3 gives car poolers the fastest option. Officials estimate if the freeway is left as is, it could take two hours to travel from the 73 to the 605 by then.

Everyone else, however, would have a faster commute by 2040 under Alternative 2, according to OCTA's own projections. That plan would add two lanes for most of that same stretch but stop at Euclid Street in Fountain Valley and leave most of Costa Mesa untouched.

That option costs an estimated $1.4 billion and could cut the commute down to 28 minutes for drivers in general-purpose lanes. It would take commuters a minute longer under Alternative 3.

Project leaders and the public showed no enthusiasm for Alternative 1, which would add one general-purpose lane each way on the 405 up to Euclid but nothing to the south. It is projected to cost $1.3 billion and cut commuting time to less than an hour by 2040.

"We don't want this project. We don't see any benefit for Costa Mesa," resident Robin Leffler said, directing her comments at Haboian.

None of the proposed projects would require taking any homes, OCTA officials said. The agency plans to host three more public meetings in cities along the corridor and take the feedback to Caltrans, which will make the ultimate decision.

Twitter: @JosephSerna

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