After long fight, Orange County transportation officials agree to toll lanes on I-405

This is a drawing the Orange County Transportation Authority presented to the board on Monday in a staff report.
This is a drawing the Orange County Transportation Authority presented to the board on Monday in a staff report. "The existing carpool lane is combined with the new express lane to provide a dual lane express lanes facility," the report said.
Orange County Transportation Authority

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After fighting toll lanes for years, Orange County transportation officials on Monday said they couldn't fight the state any longer and gave in, allowing toll lanes as part of a $1.7 billion expansion project of Interstate 405.

“If we don’t do it, Caltrans is going to do it,” said Jeffery Lalloway, chair of the Orange County Transportation Authority board. “And if Caltrans does it … no one’s going to like what comes out.”

The board voted 12-4 to move forward with a 14-mile project to widen the 405 between Long Beach and Costa Mesa by adding one regular lane and one toll lane in each direction. It also calls for converting the existing carpool lane into a toll lane.

The California Department of Transportation will provide $82 million to subsidize the $400 million price tag for the toll lanes, an OCTA spokesperson said.

The move mirrors decisions by transportation officials in Los Angeles a few years ago, when they  caved in to state officials and added toll lanes to the 110 Harbor Freeway and then the Interstate 10 El Monte freeway the following year.

In the O.C. 405 widening project, Lalloway said his agency maintains local control over setting toll rules, fees and decisions on what do to with any toll revenues collected, rather than letting the state do it and have the money go statewide.

“These revenues will stay in Orange County,” he said. “They’ll stay in your cities to fix your roads, to help you with intersections. That was a deal breaker for us.”

That’s important to public works director Mark Lewis with the city of Fountain Valley, who attended Monday's meeting to raise his concerns.

He cautioned the board that if carpool drivers are forced to pay tolls, he expects them to move into the free lanes, which will in turn push more traffic onto city streets and force cities to "build more capacity to handle that."

Under the project, cars with at least two people will be allowed to use the toll lanes for free for at least three years, according to the staff report. The board wants to keep it that way indefinitely, but is studying traffic projections to determine how much money the toll fees will bring in. The report is expected to be ready next year.

The I-405 construction project will run from State Route 73 in Costa Mesa to Interstate 605 near the Long Beach/Los Angeles County border. It's expected to take five years to complete.

By the year 2040, the expansion is estimated to shrink commute times in the free lanes between the two areas from 57 minutes to 29 minutes, according to a staff report.

“Giving everyone a half hour back on their lives is incredible,” said Lalloway said during Monday's board meeting.

For years, O.C. transportation officials and cities searched for ways to loosen congestion on the 405. The agency wanted to add only free lanes to but Caltrans was insistent on two toll lanes.

If Orange County wanted to maintain control over the expansion project, it would have to compromise, Lalloway said.

Orange County cities east of Long Beach are worried the additional lanes will bottleneck traffic in their area because the additional lanes will eventually peel-off onto I-605 and Los Angeles County officials don't have plans to expand their portion of the 405.

"You have to get something to happen in L.A. County," said Orange County Transportation Authority board member Gary Miller, who represents the Seal Beach area.