Correction: An earlier version of this article
incorrectly stated that OCTA representatives could not be reached for comment.
By Jessica Carreir
To many, the Orange County Transportation Authority’s decision to reconsider adding toll roads to the 405 Freeway came as a surprise; mainly because the agency’s board shot down the plan last year following public outcry from city leaders throughout northwest Orange County.
But following an exodus of OCTA board members, the proposal is back on the table along with options for simply adding general or carpool lanes to the freeway. Now city leaders from Seal Beach and Los Alamitos to Fountain Valley and Costa Mesa are scrambling to mount oppositions to a proposed toll road they thought was log dead.
Rebuffed in its request for an extension on the Aug. 12 deadline to comment on the project’s Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement, the Rossmoor Community Services District voted Monday to oppose the High Occupancy Toll roads and denounce Caltrans for failing to extend the deadline.
“The insensitivity of Caltrans and by extension, the motives of the OCTA Board of Directors to ‘bait and switch’ their position on HOT lanes does not pass the smell test,” said RSCD Board President Michael Maynard.
“This has not been a bait and switch. This has been a transparent process,” said OCTA spokesman Joel Zlotnik. “We have sought public input throughout the process, and will continue to do so.”
If the agency’s board were to move forward in September with an option to convert an existing carpool lane into a HOT lane and add two more additional free lanes in each direction, the decision would delay the project by about a year and trigger a whole new round of studies and opportunities for public comment, said Zlotnik.
Caltrans and OCTA are currently looking at three alternatives for expanding the 405 in northwest Orange County.
The first alternative, which was previously chosen by the OCTA board, would add one general purpose lane to either side of the 405 between Euclid Street and the 605. The second alternative permits the addition of two general purpose lanes in both directions from Euclid Street to the 605. And the third alternative allows for one additional general purpose lane in both directions, one additional HOT lane in both directions, and converting an existing carpool lane into a second Hot Lane.
The HOT lanes would take the place of regular carpool lanes. Drivers would still need at least one passenger to use these lanes, but cars with two people would incur the regular toll while cars with three or more would be free or discounted.
This is a point of concern for citizens who currently carpool on the 405. “[The OCTA] thinks [HOT lanes are] an opportunity for people to carpool and pay for the use,” explained Seal Beach Councilman Mike Levitt. “But people are used to it [being free] now.”
“I represent most of the seniors in Seal Beach. I represent Leisure World,” said Levitt. “Many of them are on social security. They’ve already paid for the 405 with their taxes. And when they go shopping in South County, they get a relative or a friend and they hop in the HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lane.”
Levitt worries about how the toll lanes will effect his citizen’s ability to quickly get around the county. He’s not the only one.
“I don’t want to see people paying for something in the future that I could take a stand against now,” said Fountain Valley councilman Michael Vo. “I don’t want to see the West Coast, especially California, end up like the East Coast where people have to stop every 5 or 10 miles to pay for road use.”
Vo worries that instituting toll lanes, like the kind installed in Los Angeles on the 110, could cause a troublesome trend.
The issue appeared resolved in October when the 16-member board at the OCTA voted 12-4 against the toll lanes and opted instead to add one general purpose lane to either side of the 405 freeway.
However, in April, after turnover on the OCTA Board, the agency voted to consider two additional options for expanding the 405 Freeway, including converting a carpool lane into a HOT lane and adding two more free lanes in each direction. The second option would add two free lanes in each direction except between Valley View Street and the 605 Freeway on the northbound side of the 405, which would only have one additional free lane in order to preserve the soundwall serving Seal Beach’s College Park East neighborhood.
The decision to reconsider the HOT lanes was triggered by the Federal Transportation Bill, which threatens federal funding to states that allow low-emission vehicles in congested carpool lanes.
Because carpool lanes on the 405 Freeway and just about every other freeway in Orange County are congested during peak hours, the board was forced to find ways to relieve congestion in the carpool lanes, explained OCTA’s Zlotnik. Options before the board include, adding more carpool lanes, increasing occupancy requirements or introducing HOT lanes, said Zlotnik.
Like many others, Los Alamitos Councilman Richard Murphy was caught off-guard by the board’s decision to reconsider the toll lanes. With the 45 days for public comment on the Supplemental EIR/EIS Draft ending on August 12, Murphy feels like there’s less time to lobby against the issue this time around.
“They also extended the deadline last time, if I remember correctly,” said Murphy.
The previous draft’s period for public comment was extended by 15 days.
“And if you notice, even with our own Land Use Plan, we delayed it a month just to be sure that our residents could see it,” said Murphy. It seems to be the opposite is happening here.”
The Supplemental EIR/EIS Draft, attempts to address concerns that the City of Long Beach has about the project’s impact on Long Beach city streets. According to the document, construction on the project would begin in 2015 and finish in 2020. The first build alternative proposed would take the least construction time, with an estimated 48 months. While the third alternative, which includes HOT lanes, would take 54 months.
During the project’s opening year in 2020, the intersections Long Beach officials were concerned with in their initial comments to the OCTA would be least effected by the first alternative and most effected by the second, according to the report.
“They’re trying to get [HOT lanes] back by using Long Beach as an excuse,” said Seal Beach’s Levitt.
Levitt, who works on the Orange County Vector Control board with County Supervisor, and OCTA board member, John Moorlach, reminded Moorlach of his stance on HOT lanes at a recent Vector Control meeting.
The Los Alamitos City Council also voted last Monday to send Moorlach a letter stating their position against HOT lanes.
OCTA will be holding a public hearing Wednesday, July 24, from 6-8 p.m. at Hill Middle School in Long Beach.