Will Kempton’s passive-aggressive war against Alternative 2, and other timely 405 thoughts.

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Sigh, this isn’t the story I wanted to write this week.  I wanted to be able to show some of the swing voters on the OCTA Board – i.e., the fiscally conscientious Lorri Galloway, Shawn Nelson, Carolyn Cavecche, Peter Herzog and Michael Hennessey – that we CAN afford the new, Streamlined Alternative 2, that it will NOT cost $1.4 billion NOR will it cost $100 million more than Alternative 1, and it will NOT be taking away resources from important projects in other parts of the County as OCTA staff threatens.  And I wanted to be able to show them that using numbers from a source they would trust, OCTA staff themselves.

So, at the last meeting, Oct. 5, I asked the staff, and asked the Board to ask the staff, for a precise amount of how much we’d be saving with our proposed Streamlined Alternative 2.  How much we would save, 1)  from narrowing down to one new northbound lane north of the 22 rather than two, 2) from not having to tear down and rebuild the Almond Avenue Sound Wall, and 3) from no longer having to buy out the property of displaced businesses in Fountain Valley.  My demand was seconded, thirded and fourthed by Directors Winterbottom, Moorlach, and Crandall.  Many of us very much suspect an honest answer would bring that $100 million overrun down very near zero.  (I.e, getting the $1.4 billion price tag down to the $1.3 they’ve admitted to having allocated for the project.)

Now we see, in their 679-page Agenda for tomorrow morning’s meeting, exactly how forthcoming OCTA staff is willing to be.  Totally blowing off the Fountain Valley question [update – I found THAT on page 44, that’s a wild story in itself] they claim (on pages 25-6) that the streamlining in Seal Beach would save only $7 million dollars (and then go on to bitch about how that would create a “bottleneck,” a bottleneck which would happen anyway with their plan, just a little farther north.)  The meagerness of this $7 million estimate stretches credulity – unbiased, independent engineers have estimated it at closer to $30 million.

But it’s all part of the inescapable picture now:  as surely as Kempton’s OCTA craves the toll revenue of Alt 3, they also see the popular Alt 2 as something to be defeated by any means necessary.

Kempton, Moving the Goal Posts and Threatening the Neighbors.

I’m not trying to make Will Kempton, OCTA CEO, into some master villain, not knowing how autocratic a leader he is or isn’t.  I’m using him as shorthand for the institutional urges of the OCTA staff who are understandably driven toward toll revenue, and against anything – such as Alternative Two – that would get in the way of toll revenues.  Maybe the bureaucracy would be doing the same thing under different leadership.  And would need to be taken in hand by the Board in any case, just as they do now.

Anyway these are some key parts of “Kempton’s War” on Alt 2:

MOVING THE GOALPOSTS.   These were unquestioned matters of faith that everyone had memorized since the summer:  Alternative 1 would cost $1.3 billion, Alt 2 would cost $1.4 billion.  We HAD $1.3 billion allocated, so we were all set to do Alt 1 if that was what the Board wanted.  In order to get the extra lane of Alt 2 we would need an extra $100 million.  And where would we find it was the question.

But then, as we started finding ways to improve Alt 2 while lowering its costs, getting it pretty much down to the $1.3 billion goal we supposedly had, Kempton moved the goal posts.  Since some of the savings (most notably in Fountain Valley) also applied to Alt 1, the cost of BOTH those Alternatives went down, and the complaint from staff (and Toll Trolls) was no longer that Alt 2 was too much over $1.3 billion, but that it was too much more than Alt 1.

Meanwhile Kempton began THREATENING THE NEIGHBORS.  Meaning, he started listing off other OCTA projects in other parts of the County, parts of the County represented by other Board members, that would have to be sacrificed or at least postponed if we gave the 405 the two new lanes of Alt 2.  In this new agenda he lists some of those projects on pages 22-3.  “If the Board should select Alt 2,  it will require a re-assessment of these projects,” he snips while listing a grab-bag of south and north county transportation goodies.

Well, we call bullshit on this attempt to divide and conquer Board members, now that we’ve reduced the costs of Alt 2 AND Measure M2 tax revenues are increasing (more on that below.)

And now, a Legal Opinion from Alberto Gonzalez:

Here’s how shameless.  Just as George W Bush seemed to have lawyers not for the purpose of telling him what was legal or illegal but to give him legal justification for anything he felt like doing, so the OCTA General Counsel, whom I’m giving the professional courtesy of NOT naming, manages to not only tell his bosses that they’re perfectly able to do exactly what they want to do, but also that they are forbidden from doing what they don’t want to do.

Yes, on pages 27-9, responding to the question of whether it’s legal to build taxpayer-paid, voter-approved free lanes and immediately take them away for toll collection, he concludes that, yes, not only is that perfectly legal, but building two lanes when Measure M only mentioned one (i.e. Alt 2) is illegal.   Signed, sealed, delivered.

Wait – NOW the OCTA General Counsel says that Alternative 2 is illegal?  After OCTA staff wasted millions of dollars and half a dozen years planning and engineering that alternative?  Of COURSE it’s not illegal, these three pages of sophistry are laughable.  I sure hope nobody on the Board finds them convincing.  Or pretends to.

It’s Time for a Crisis in the Board’s Trust of the Staff!

It’s time for the intelligent and honest members of the OCTA Board, which I believe is more than half of them, to start thinking of OCTA staff under CEO Kempton’s leadership as untrustworthy children, who will come up with a thousand reasons why a visit to Disneyland is a great and affordable idea, but when the idea of sending them off to summer camp by themselves comes up, start singing “Camp Granada” …

What We Do Know, of Alternative 2’s affordability.

Again, I apologize to Lorri, Shawn, and the rest that I still don’t have the precise numbers for Streamlined Alternative 2, but we WILL have them soon, from unbiased engineers we can trust, and some of them will be talking tomorrow morning (Monday the 22nd.)  Until then, here’s what we know:

Item.  Kempton once admitted to Supervisor Moorlach in an unguarded moment that the fact we’re no longer needing to displace several Fountain Valley businesses will shave off a clean $50 million[Update – It is $70 million.  OCTA’s own numbers.]  That also would get subtracted from Alt 1’s cost, but so what.  This means that right there, Alt 2 is not $1.4 billion but $1.33 billion.  Only $30 million over the $1.3 billion we had allocated.

Item.  OCTA staff claims that the streamlining north of the 22, and the saving of the Almond Avenue Wall, would save only $7 million;  we believe it is more like $30 million, and will be back soon with hard numbers.  But still, even $7 million is not nothing, and brings the cost of Streamlined Alt 2 down to $1.323 billion – or only $23 million over the $1.3 billion we have.

Item.  The design-build option, which we know would shave off $100 million, is NOT a mirage, or a pipe dream, or a “crap shoot” as Kempton and Ms Cavecche would have it.  I spoke personally with Senator Lou Correa, the county’s most experienced and capable state Senator (and godfather of this Board), whose newly designed district will include a lot of the affected area in a couple of months.  He hasn’t been following this debate closely.  But he did say that if the Board chose Alternative Two, he would be happy to carry the enabling legislation to make that design-build.  All he would have to do is “take on one union” (the union representing transportation engineers) “but it’s not like I’ve never done that before.”  And who in the legislature could argue with the reasoning:  creating the optimal traffic flow through Orange County at the lowest possible cost during an economic downturn?  That would bring us down well BELOW the $1.3 billion, even if the OCTA’s measly figures were correct – down to $1.223 billion.

Item.  The Register recently reported that the OCTA M2 tax haul for the quarter ending in June was up 4.7% over last year.  As my friend Eric Bever says, “This ‘we’re too broke’ song and dance is starting to lose its charm.”

Item.  This freeway widening is the biggest project in the M2 bundle which has variably been estimated to net 23, 18, or 15 Billion.  Why we can’t manage to squeeze $1.3 out of that to do the “biggest project in OCTA history” is incomprehensible.

Item.  Finally, there’s a very good chance Seal Beach and Westminster will soon be represented in Washington DC by Congressman Alan Lowenthal, a great believer (unlike his predecessor Dana Rohrabacher) in bringing back federal money to this donor area to invest in our infrastructure.  Not a sure thing, but one more reason for optimism.

Still, wait for our hard numbers – coming soon!

Is Delay Our Friend?

The best that could happen Monday morning the 22nd is four or more directors decide to do the right thing and side with Directors Moorlach, Crandall, Nguyen, Dalton, and Bates, and give the green light to the Streamlined Alt 2.  Put all this “Chinese water torture” behind us and just make it work – ’tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.  But what else could happen, if four are not convinced yet?

Director Larry Crandall, the longest-serving of all Board members, termed out in December and an Alt 2 stalwart, worries that the Toll Trolls have been purposely delaying the vote, thinking that a new Board with seven novices will be easier to manipulate.  Hm.  Maybe that is what they think.  They have shown themselves to be pretty deluded in other ways.

We’ll be sad to see Larry Crandall go, and wish him best of luck in his run for Water Board.  But look at who else we’ll be losing in December and January – just about all of the strongest voices for Tolls – that’s Miguel Pulido, Jerry Amante, Paul Glaab, Gregory Winterbottom, Supervisor Campbell.  And Campbell will be replaced by the much more honest Todd Spitzer, whom I happen to know well.  (The inscrutable Peter Herzog will also be gone for better or worse.)

Meanwhile ANYBODY that can be found to replace these seven will not have been able to miss all the controversy surrounding this 405 Tolls scam.  By now Tolls on the 405 are a Third Rail in OC politics, and we’ll make sure it stays that way.  Alt 2 NOW would be best, but it’s hard to see how delay could hurt us.  (With apologies to Moorlach who I know is sick of this!)

Shootout at Alternative 1 Corral?

Does anybody really think Alternative 1 is a good or worthwhile idea?  Spending $1.3 billion or maybe $1.2 billion of taxpayer money and putting coastal OC through Carmageddon for five years, just for one extra lane that will leave us in a few years with traffic as bad as we have now or worse?  I’d like to believe everybody on the Board is at least smart enough that they can see Alt 1 would be a reprehensible waste.

But it COULD turn out tomorrow like the Highway Committee six weeks ago, where enough people feel that Alt 1 is a sort of compromise between Tolls and Progress.  Granted, it WOULD start the process of getting the bridges rebuilt at least.  Some Toll Trolls have made it pretty obvious that they’re considering passing Alt 1 and THEN sometime in the future slipping in the tolls, morphing it somehow into the 3 they dream of.

But … two can play that game, no?  It would be just as easy to start with Alt 1 this year and morph it into Alt 2 next year – we could even have a special election between now and then to see if OC taxpayers would rather pay to have toll lanes or two new free lanes.  How would you Toll Trolls like that?

So – best outcome tomorrow, Streamlined Alt 2 immediately!  Second best, more delay.  Third best, Alt 1 and meet to fight again another day.  Bring it on, Toll Trolls!

PS.  From this morning’s Register:  Great Minds Think Alike!

About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at vernpnelson@gmail.com, or 714-235-VERN.