Photo by John Schreiber.
Photo by John Schreiber.

Orange County Transportation Authority board members went on record for the third time Monday backing construction of two new lanes on the San Diego (405) Freeway that would be free to motorists.

The board however refused to pass a largely symbolic proposal to oppose a state plan to add two toll lanes to the freeway, despite one board member criticizing the toll-road plan as being “for the few on the backs of the many.”

The proposal supported by the board will build one free lane in each direction on the San Diego (405) Freeway from the San Joaquin Hills (73) Freeway to the San Gabriel (605) Freeway. Construction is expected to begin in 2016 and be finished by 2020, according to a board official.

Orange County Supervisor and OCTA board member Todd Spitzer moved to condemn Caltrans’ intention to add single high-occupancy toll lanes in each direction, but the motion, which would have been largely symbolic, was rejected. Board members Al Murray, Steve Jones, Mike Hennessy, Greg Winterbottom, Jeff Lalloway, Lori Dunchak, Frank Ury and Tim Shaw opposed Spitzer’s motion.

The board voted 12 to 4 to spend $1.3 billion from voter-approved Measure M money to construct the two free lanes. Board member and county Supervisor John Moorlach and Spitzer joined board members Gary Miller and Tom Tait in opposition, with county Supervisor and board member Janet Nguyen and Miguel Pulido absent.

Caltrans upset many leaders in the 405 corridor cities in July when officials announced plans to build the toll lanes. State officials say the free lanes would not provide enough relief of traffic congestion and want to build toll lanes available to motorists who are carpooling or driving solo but willing to pay a premium for the convenience.

Caltrans officials, however, need $400 million to build the toll lanes, so it’s unclear when or if the plan will ever get off the ground.

The stretch of the 405 in Orange County carries more than 370,000 vehicles a day and that is expected to jump by 35 percent by 2040.

Spitzer and Moorlach argued that backing the free-lane plan takes away the county’s leverage against Caltrans in building the toll lanes.

Moorlach also said it is wasteful to have two projects being done separately and encouraged Caltrans to work with OCTA on a plan everyone can agree on.

“Good business practices would be if we all worked together and get all four lanes at the same time,” Moorlach said. “Let’s not inconvenience all these people more who have put up with the West-County connector projects for the past eight years… Let’s show the taxpayers we’re being good stewards.”

Moorlach added Caltrans officials should not try to ram through a plan without local support. He also argued that motorists who can pay a little more should not get an advantage over other drivers who have already contributed with sales tax revenue in Measure M.

“It’s Caltrans saying we believe this is the best way to move the traffic, and we’re saying that might be true, but it’s for the few on the backs of the many,” Moorlach said.

Moorlach and OCTA Chairman Shawn Nelson said Caltrans should have developed a statewide policy on the toll lanes before jumping into the Orange County debate.

“If they believe toll lanes are the future they should show how it all links together all the way from Mexico to Oregon,” Moorlach said.

“I just think and hope that the state will do a top-to-bottom look how comprehensively to solve this and then the 405 people won’t feel so picked on,” Nelson said.

Nelson, however, praised Caltrans officials for not blocking the two free lanes and making approval of the project linked to the toll lanes.

“Caltrans could have made it contingent on (the state’s approval),” Nelson said. “But they let us go ahead with the project we wanted to build. Caltrans didn’t have to let us do that… It was a favor to Orange County they didn’t have to do.”

David Richardson of Caltrans said the free lanes won’t solve the problem of congestion in Orange County, and adding a second toll lane in each direction “gives us options” such as a bus lane that will get more motorists off the road.

“Forty people on a bus takes 40 people out of general-purpose lanes,” Richardson said.

The state plans to consider borrowing money and pursuing federal grants to pay for the toll lanes, Richardson said.

Construction on the two new free lanes is expected to begin in 2016 and be done by 2020, Nelson said.

City News Service

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