OCTA board postpones 405 expansion decision

ORANGE — Keeping alive the hopes of toll lane supporters, the Orange County Transportation Authority board of directors voted Monday to postpone its decision on how to expand the San Diego (405) Freeway between Costa Mesa and Seal Beach.

With a 12-4 vote, the board decided to rehear the issue at its Oct. 22 meeting.

At Monday's four-hour hearing at OCTA's headquarters on South Main Street, dozens of speakers argued over the competing visions for the chronically congested stretch of freeway.

"I think all the options need to be aired out a little bit better," board Chairman Paul Glaab said. "We only have one chance to get it right."

Costa Mesa city leaders advocated for a nontoll option at the meeting. Its City Council has joined five other cities along the freeway stretch in opposition to so-called express lanes.

"I'm disappointed that they didn't knuckle down and make a decision today," said Costa Mesa Mayor Eric Bever.

"I guess it gives us another day to come back and fight again," he added.

Out of three main proposals, Bever and representatives from the corridor cities support Alternative 2. It would add two general-purpose lanes in each direction, but is expected to cost about $100 million more than the county has pegged for the project.

Costa Mesa recently hired a lobbyist for $25,000 to persuade the board members to support Alternative 2. At least two of the other cities have agreed to contribute to the cost.

City leaders faced some tough criticism. Some of the directors pushed back against their parochial concerns, saying that the region's transportation goals are their highest priorities.

"It is not just the six corridor cities that use the 405," OCTA Director and Lake Forest Mayor Peter Herzog said.

Others said that the $100 million needed for Alternative 2 would potentially disadvantage other county projects, like the San Diego (5) Freeway widening in South County.

Costa Mesa Public Services Director Ernesto Munoz tried to offer some funding solutions: efficient design and construction could save money, and state or federal funds could be used to free up other funds from Measure M, the voter-approved half-cent sales tax that funds county transportation projects.

Ultimately, the majority of directors said they had more questions that needed to be answered before making a decision. Herzog pointed to a map that showed areas that could benefit from excess toll revenue.

"What projects are going to be done? What cities are going to benefit? I have no idea," he said.

The OCTA Regional Planning and Highways Committee recommended last week that the board adopt Alternative 1, a plan to add one general-purpose lane to both sides of the 405 between the San Gabriel River (605) and the Corona del Mar (73) freeways.

That was the least expensive alternative, projected to cost $1.3 billion.

One of the main arguments supporting Alternative 1 was that it allowed additional lanes — whether toll, carpool, bus or general purpose — to be built later. County Supervisor and OCTA Director Bill Campbell said he didn't want to "foreclose any options," and added that some type of rail service may even be a possibility.

To get the project started, Campbell offered a "hail Mary" compromise that would begin the design work on the project. The final decision about toll lanes, though, would depend on a pending state determination about carpool lanes.

The California Department of Transportation may require vehicles to have three or more passengers to travel in the state's carpool lanes, OCTA staff members said. In response to federal guidelines, the change could throw off the nontoll alternatives, some board members said. The express lanes would already have the three-passenger exception.

It was an emotionally charged audience, with supporters and opponents of the toll lanes bursting into arguments in their seats. The standing-room-only crowd spilled into an overflow room. Thirty-three people testified.

OCTA Director John Moorlach, the county supervisor representing Costa Mesa, said he didn't want a delay.

"This is like Chinese water torture," said Moorlach, who voted against postponing a decision. He supported Alternative 2 and criticized the express lane idea, which he called a tax on top of Measure M.

"You are gathering excess funds to use somewhere else," Moorlach said. "It's a very disturbing idea."

Officials expect tolls to generate between $1.3 billion and $1.5 billion in revenue over 30 years.

The toll option, Alternative 3, would add a lane in either direction and combine it with the existing carpool lanes to form two toll lanes running in either direction. Carpools with three or more people would ride free, and carpools with two or more per vehicle could ride free except during peak rush hours. It would be similar to the 91 Express Lanes.

The Orange County Business Council and labor leaders endorsed the toll lane option, arguing that it would provide the most mobility.

"We need to move goods, services and people efficiently in Orange County," said Doug Mangione of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 441. "Alternative 3 is the most fiscally responsible and most efficient."

OCTA projects that the traffic on the 405 stretch will increase by more than 100,000 vehicles per day by 2040.

Alternative 1 was expected to cut travel time by more than half for vehicles heading north during the evening rush hour. The Alternative 2 would cut travel time in half again, and vehicles in express lanes could cut their time by an additional 50%.

After the OCTA board recommends an alternative, Caltrans will make the final decision, which would likely be later this year or early next.


Twitter: @mreicher

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