When Orange County voters passed Measure M2 in 2006, they committed spending $1.3 billion to widen a 14-mile stretch of the busy I-405 by one lane in each direction. The project is set to begin in 2016 and finish four years later.
On Friday, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) announced it wants to add another lane to the county’s project for $400 million, group it with the existing free carpool lane and charge people money to drive in them. Current toll lane prices elsewhere in the state have approached $10 for a one-way trip.
Caltrans would get a couple of revenue-producing “Lexus lanes” and people willing and able to pay for a more luxurious driving experience would have a less-encumbered thoroughfare. Less fortunate Orange County motorists would have the same five free lanes that drove them to pass Measure M2 eight years ago, when there were fewer drivers on the road.
Caltrans also considered a plan that would have skipped the toll lane and added a second free lane to the Orange County one-lane project for another $100 million, but opted for the costlier option, although it’s not clear where the money would come from.
Caltrans has been pushing for toll lanes elsewhere in the state. Los Angeles pushed back before adding toll lanes on sections of two freeways. Riverside County is creating them on one freeway and San Bernardino County is taking a hard look at them. Orange County and Caltrans have been arguing about them for more than a year.
Six cities along the route banded together in opposition and in December the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) voted not to support a toll lane. OCTA’s opposition didn’t matter and in its press release announcing the decision acknowledged, “As the ultimate owner and operator of the state highway system, Caltrans has the final decision.”
Orange County leaders who talked to the Los Angeles Times were not happy with the Caltrans decision and one detected a whiff of revolution in the air. “I think once voters realize what's coming down at them, they're going to rebel and people are going to want to keep the freeways free,” Huntington Beach Mayor Matthew Harper said.
The revolution, Harper implied, would be more about government raising taxes and fees than about favoritism for the privileged or monetized public property originally developed for the common good. But revolt is revolt, and opponents of the toll lanes think Caltrans is going to have a tough time getting them financed.
“Caltrans has no money (for express lanes) and no plan right now,” Orange County Supervisor and OCTA Chairman Shawn Nelson told the Orange County Register. Nelson said, “Maybe they’ll catch us at the tail end (of construction). But that’s a big if.”
Project planners want a final environmental document finished by early next year and time’s awasting. Caltrans estimates that traffic on the 14-mile stretch of I-405 will increase 35% by 2040.