Commentary: Stop the 'south county Lexus' lanes

The Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) has devised an audacious scheme, and its spin-off, "alternatives 3 and 3-A," would use billions of Measure M2 freeway congestion-improvement tax dollars to construct toll lanes on the San Diego (405) Freeway between Seal Beach and Costa Mesa.

And, curiously, Alternative 3-A was rolled out after the public comment period was formally closed, eliminating the opportunity to officially analyze and comment on the new proposal. These taxpayer-funded toll lanes will primarily benefit only those who are willing and able to pay tolls, in addition to their share of billions in Measure M2 taxes allocated to 405 improvements.

Orange County taxpayers did not vote to build a 405 toll road when we supported Measure M2, did we? Tolls were never part of the Measure M2 discussion.

Alternatives 3 and 3-A are toll road alternatives OCTA is considering to purportedly improve traffic on the 405, alternatives its staff is pushing for the hardest. OCTA officials tried to run their shell game, cajoling corridor cities to buy in, but thankfully several skeptical city councils along the 405 corridor, and hundreds of their residents, didn't fall for it.

Here is OCTA's pitch (which the media relentlessly repeats): Alternative 3 would provide an additional "general-purpose" lane and an "express" lane in each direction through the central O.C. 405 corridor.

Two additional lanes in each direction sound great, right?

Unfortunately, that's not the truth. In fact, OCTA is really planning on adding two limited-access (toll and HOV) lanes. These lanes will not be available to the general public, unless you can actually gain access to the toll lanes, (tough in central O.C.), and you are willing and able to pay tolls for using the lanes.

The result is that the 405 northbound bottlenecks are not addressed, and the taxpayers fronting the $1.3 billion in Measure M2 taxes receive zero additional freeway congestion-relieving lanes. Where we now have five free lanes (four general, one carpool) we will still have only five freely accessible lanes after the favored Alternative 3's $1.7 billion has been spent.

Simply put, OCTA's preferred Alternative 3 and Alternative 3-A — its attempt at mollifying the corridor cities — both leave the "free" in freeway and add two lanes only usable by those who have FasTrack toll transponders and who are willing and able to pay for every trip.

At $4 to $5 per trip, typical commuters will add $160 to $200 to their monthly commuting costs to use the toll lanes. And forget about the popular carpool lanes with access at every major cross street; they are dust under OCTA's 405 toll lane proposals.

OCTA has suggested free high-occupancy HOV (three-plus passengers) access to the toll lanes. However, this only occurs when traffic is light, and any benefit of using the lanes is minimal. During heavy traffic it is likely that everyone will have to pay to use the toll and HOV lanes, no matter how many passengers they carry.

Even if OCTA votes to build toll lanes with toll-free HOV (three-plus) lanes (not the current plan), the lack of available access into and out of the lanes severely restricts the freedom and ease of use for those who might otherwise benefit from HOV lanes.

Recently, at the OCTA 405 Policy Group meeting, we were informed that this limited access did not matter because the lanes are not intended for central county users.

Wow, that statement gives credence to the comment of a resident, who previously opined that alternatives 3 and 3A, are essentially "south county Lexus lanes."

At the 405 policy meeting, OCTA staff also informed us that the offensive Corona del Mar (73) to 405 toll lane connectors that Costa Mesa vehemently opposes "can be built at a later time."

Clearly, while OCTA works to mollify Costa Mesa with Alternative 3-A, which "removes the SR-73 connector and demolition of the Fairview [Road] bridge," which are part of Alternative 3, the real game plan appears to be to allay our fears with 3-A, while cynically planning to shove the massively disruptive connectors through our city at a later date.

We also heard today that the corridor cities will be the recipients of any "excess tolls". This proposal is offensive, as while OCTA attempts to entice the corridor cities to support their 405 Toll Road scheme with the promise of cold hard cash, they make us complicit in the robbery of the Orange County taxpayer. Thanks, but NO Thanks!

To their credit, the corridor city representatives present at today's policy meeting voted to affirm our position opposing tolls on the 405, and reaffirmed our support for simply adding two lanes each way, accessible to all.

The city councils of the 405 corridor cities of Costa Mesa, Fountain Valley, Westminster, Huntington Beach, Seal Beach and Los Alamitos unanimously oppose Alternative 3 and support Alternative 2, with minor modifications, which provides two new free (general-purpose) lanes, which will address the bottlenecks and improve commutes for everyone with no extra toll charges.

The OCTA board will be making a decision Sept. 24 on its 405 proposals, and if you have not yet weighed in, please consider doing so.

OCTA's 405 Alternative 3 and 3-A toll road schemes are highway robbery with the taxpayers as victims, and it's time to put the notion of charging tolls on our FREEways to rest. Speak up now for Alternative 2, or forever pay the price.

ERIC BEVER is mayor of Costa Mesa.

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