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The battle over adding toll lanes on the 405 is a classic example of government at its worst.
The battle is not between alternatives and the proponents for various alternatives.
Instead, this is one of those pivotal moments where we get to see whether the elected officials who serve on this board are capable of independent decision making, or whether they can be manipulated by CEO Will Kempton, who has directed his staff to cook the reports time and again to manipulate board members into arriving at the decision that Kempton prefers.
For the last several months, it has become glaringly obvious that Kempton has directed staff to produce reports that justified adding tolls to the 405 freeway. As criticism mounted, so did the lies. For the last month, staff has been desperately seeking some set of compromises that would allow them to sell toll roads to local cities and an outraged public. The reports have lost any pretense of honesty or balance, and instead keep looking for some last-ditch solution that will let them come back one more time for another chance to impose tolls on free lanes in direct contravention to the promises of Measure M.
After the economy collapsed in 2008, OCTA gradually came to terms with a new, chilling fiscal reality. The projected income from the Measure M sales tax override (half a cent on every dollar spent in Orange County) collapsed. Then the state took away tax revenues that had been dedicated to subsidizing operating costs of buses.
In this new environment, adding tolls to freeways suddenly appeared like a gigantic goose that could keep laying golden eggs. The first version of a report by Stantec forecast billions in long term revenue, and that revenue did not have the same voter-approved safeguards as Measure M.
Kempton, just selected as CEO of OCTA, started chasing that goose as fast as his short legs could carry him.
So the OCTA PR machine cranked into action with their Big Lie, that their toll schemes were all just about “adding capacity” and “managing peak flow.” They added in additional lies as needed, like the whopper that “Sure, this is just what Measure M really meant.” And they cranked out a massive volume with selective use of reports to justify their pre-determined outcome. Finally, they rolled out an expensive “public outreach” campaign designed to minimize any objections.
Ideologically, many board members were already convinced that adding toll lanes was the type of privatized social engineering that they could support. And they could point to a generation of propaganda cranked out by billionaire-funded shops like the Reason Institute, bolstered by the over-the-top propaganda generated by their own flacks to promote the “success” of the 91 Express Lanes. So the spin job had some board members who wanted to believe the lies, in addition to a few weak sisters like “public member” Gregory Winterbottom, who has never read a staff report he didn’t praise.
But local elected officials in cities closest to the 405 listened closely to their own traffic engineers and the concerns of the people they represented. And some of the OCTA board members have begun to get very itchy when they noticed the telltale signs of staff manipulating the reports to justify a single option.
This morning (Monday Sept. 24) we get to count noses at the final Board vote for the preferred local alternative.
There is one obvious best choice that has emerged from the discussion, and it is overwhelmingly preferred by the cities who have studied the issues closely. Almost all of the costs of the project are in the construction costs of replacing 17 bridges across the freeway. When that major work is completed, there is enough room in the right of way to squeeze in two additional lanes where they are most needed, between Harbor and the 22 freeway. Between the 22 and the 605, where the West County Connector project is already adding lanes and solving carpool lane merge and diverge problems, engineers can find a less costly solution than the full project proposed under Alternative 2. Call it Alternative 2 Light or a more robust Alternative 1. Dollar for dollar, this compromise alternative is the best single way of honoring the commitment to voters and producing maximum capacity for dollars spent.
Staff’s last stand is to propose a phony solution – pretend to go along with a freeway while mustering a new public relations and education campaign to sell us on tolls.
It’s far past time to stop paying attention to a staff that has lost any semblance of honesty. Some of them should be fired, including Kempton, the underqualified project manager, and most of the overpaid public relations staff. And their outside attorney needs to be terminated forthwith after his absurd legal advice about the consistency of toll lanes and Measure M. Cutting the millions spent on internal flacks and hired outside PR firms could provide millions more towards providing concrete instead of hot air.
There are strong indications that the board has had its fill of the spin doctors and their wildly unpopular plan to add tolls.
We’ll see how they vote on Monday, and how they handle their staff crisis afterwards.