OCTA Board inches closer to giving away our 405 to the Toll Trolls.


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Background

Almost exactly a year ago, in one of our dozens of pieces following last year’s debate of 405 improvements, we wrote the following:

Down for the count? No, the 405 Toll Lane Option known as Alternative 3 is not quite “down for the count.” It’s down for the moment, far from the nine votes it would need to become reality. But it’s not giving up. It’s bleeding, bruised and beaten, but look! It is still crawling across the floor with a ferocious gleam in its eye, and probably has one of those little knives strapped to its ankle, ready to suddenly stab us in the foot and then maul us.

In other words, we’re still in the early stages of a long brutal fight to the death with this scam. Even then there will be the part, months from now, where we think we’ve finished it off and we let our guard down, and then it suddenly pops up with an insane grin and lunges at us grasping some new unexpected weapon.

For what we’re dealing with here is a hunger for toll revenues that is implacable, more than mortal, more than human, a hunger that has OCTA staff wandering the dark and empty streets in the wee hours, arms outstretched, faces vacant, mouths agape.

Since then

We knew that the forces who want tolls on our highways – the Curt Pringle-allied members on the OCTA Board (most of them also lobbyists themselves), the OCTA bureaucracy, the Pringle-run OC Business Council and OC Tax, the crooked Pringle-allied unions (Teamsters and Building Trades) would be back with a new trick to get their coveted tolls – just as we knew WE’D be back fighting for the TWO new free lanes each direction of “Alternative 2.”  When the Board settled on the one free lane of Alt. 1 late last year it was an uneasy and unsatisfactory compromise for both sides – what a waste to spend $1.3 billion, five years, tear down and rebuild nineteen bridges for an “improvement” that would barely make a difference to our traffic flow – but TWO lanes, for only a fraction more of cost, WOULD make a big difference.

This year there’s a mostly new Board, who came into this mostly uninformed.  A few came in born to be Toll Trolls – Pringle disciple Gail Eastman, and Amante disciple Al Murray – and a few were stalwarts from the Corridor – HB’s Matt Harper and Seal Beach’s Gary Miller.  Anyway OUR argument was simple, logical and popular.  What would the Toll Trolls come back with?

Glossary

  • Alternative 1 (2012 terminology) – add one general-purpose lane on outside of highway going each way (from Harbor to 605)
  • Alternative 2 (2012 terminology) – add TWO general-purpose lanes each way, only fractionally more expensive than Alt 1.  Two problems – a sound wall in Seal Beach, and hooking up at the county line.
  • Alternative 3 (2012 terminology) – the toll-lane option.  Build two more lanes on the outside a la alt 2, but then change the two INNER lanes (including our current 2+ carpool lane) into Toll or “HOT” lanes also usable for 3+ carpools.  Only entrance/exits planned at Goldenwest and Brookhurst;  may stop at Harbor or may go all the way to 73.
  • CONCEPT A (Shawn Nelson idea) – add one (or two?) lanes on outside, change only our one carpool lane to a HOT/3+ lane.
  • CONCEPT B (John Moorlach idea) – streamlined Alternative 2 – two new general purpose lanes, except on the northbound side it streamlines down to just ONE new lane, to save the Seal beach sound wall and hook up smoother at the county line.
  • “HOT” Lanes = “managed lanes” = toll lanes
  • “HOV” (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes = carpool lanes (whether 2+ or 3+)
  • and now:

“Degradation.”

I’ve been avoiding writing about this, it’s so frustrating and stupid, but you may have caught it in the Register or Times.  In short, a convenient convergence of Federal and State law requires that single-occupancy low-emission vehicles, which in California are allowed to drive in HOV lanes, shouldn’t have to drive under 45 MPH, even at rush hour, TOO OFTEN.  And the bad cop that OCTA is using to enforce this whimsical statute is Caltrans.  Supposedly the only way to make sure these vehicles go fast enough is to put TOLLS on that HOV lane.  And according to SOME – OCTA staff, Shawn Nelson – if we don’t make toll lanes ourselves and keep the proceeds in the County, Caltrans will take the funds themselves.  (And disappear them into the hated, feared black hole of Sacramento.)

Our big point is we are a “SELF-HELP COUNTY.” We have voted to TAX OURSELVES to improve our own highway.  (Measure M, M2)  And we do not want to have to pay twice, with tolls.  The dense Lucy Dunn of OC Business Council told the Register, “That’s like saying, ‘Well, I bought my house, so I don’t have to do repairs on it.’ ”  NO it’s not like that, Lucy – what we’ve paid for is not just the house but ALSO THE REPAIRS – over a billion in taxes toward the expansion – and we want to be able to say HOW we want those repairs done.

15 of these Board members are elected officials, so at the very least I will be reporting to you what each of them do here on your behalf today.

Live-Blogging

I get here late, sorry.  But did I say “bad cop?”  As I walk in the OCTA chairman is bowing and scraping to Caltrans: “We realize if we don’t do this ourselves and keep the money local, you will take it from us.”

Now Seal Beach Mayor (councilman?) Gary Miller is speaking passionately against this imposition.  One of his many good points:  this degradation study takes NO consideration of what toll lanes would do to the OTHER lanes —- the lanes 95% or more of us drive in and will continue to.

Moorlach is bristling at the sense of “Cram-down”  Like Miller he feels that this County is being singled out and punished by state and feds.  Finally I’m caught up…

SPITZER.  Growing more and more concerned about the impact this is having on the Board’s unity.  Oh – he’s calling us west county people “parochial?”  Todd thinks highly of what Caltrans is doing, and laments that West County folks like Moorlach and Miller are responding to their constituents who don’t want tolls.  Hey – if the vote’s not final today, all you constituents of Todd should contact him.  NOBODY in the County wants tolls on the 405 … and it will happen to the rest of you next!

Todd loves toll lanes – I’ve seen him say so on his Facebook wall – he feels they offer a “choice” and are not forced on anyone.  Mostly he laments the divisiveness of all this, and doesn’t want anyone to feel this is being “forced on them.”

“Public member”  HENNESSY – Will “two lanes” fix the degradation?  What does the question even mean?  Staff assumes he means two toll lanes or two HOV lanes.  OK, he clarified, he’s talking about Alt 2.  Which he voted against last year.  Staff responds it would be “saturated” within five years.  I tend not to believe that, these people are so motivated for tolls.  Wants to be “pro-active” and keep funds local.

PULIDO (the toll lover par excellence) – “If we just say no no no to everything, we won’t have any input to our destiny.”  And the question is “do we have managed lanes or not.”  So that means according to Pulido, it’s say YES to toll lanes or LOSE OUR DESTINY.  He’s wanting to fuck with the 5 and its onramps, he says – and he predicts the Science Center is going to give him a lot of grief — did you all know that up there?  All these toll trolls consistently plead for “unity.”

GARY MILLER – quotes Matt Harper from before I got here – who apparently got Caltrans to agree that two HOV lanes would also be a possible solution – rather than tolls.

MATT HARPER – our guy from HB – let’s see how he does.  “How would this toll lane plan work as it approaches LA county?”  Vague answer.  “Would our two toll lanes be crammed down to one toll lane when we cross the county line?”  LA is looking at various options…  Matt is concerned that if we built toll lanes going to LA county, it will be a “tolled parking lot.”

PAT BATES, who has been great on this, last year at least:  We are getting too distracted by the dreams of this revenue that won’t be coming in any case for a long long time…

The lady from San Clemente (I think) wants to know what the time frame is, how long we really have to solve this…

Westminster Councilwoman Diana Lee Carey – who’s been fighting this longer than anyone (and whose Facebook page I run) – steps up to give the only public comment (used to be dozens, what happened, people give up?)  She is representing SIX corridor cities, and is treated by half the Board with fatigued condescension.   Here she is: (transcript in the comments section below)

 

Next, a staff member spends some time singing the glory of “managed” or toll lanes in general, then takes to comparing Shawn Nelson’s “Concept A” unfavorably to Alternative 3.  Shawn would like to change our current HOV lane to HOV-slash-toll lane, AND build one more free lane.  That didn’t sound too bad to me, except we want TWO more free lanes.  But it’s obvious that the traffic in this new HOV/HOT lane won’t be able to go so fast unless there is CONTINUOUS ACCESS – since nobody will be able to pass each other, and there will be slowups at the few entrances and exits as people try to merge.  And staff has refused to discuss continuous access.  They just point out that it won’t be as FAST as Alt 3 (with its TWO toll lanes) and also won’t bring in as much revenue as Alt 3.

Now they are talking Concept B, Moorlach’s “streamlined Alt 2″ which narrows down on the northbound side in Seal Beach to save their beloved Almond Ave Sound Wall (and as Miller points out, minimizes the sudden crunch at County line.)  Moorlach points out staff’s false argument – they are comparing its flow unfavorably to Alt 2, WHICH NEVER GOT APPROVED – they SHOULD be comparing it to Alt 1, which DID.  I’m as frustrated as Moorlach – they spin things any way they want, to steer us back to Alt 3.  Oh, this settles it – “Caltrans would not be supportive of Concept B”  That should settle our hash.

Staff recommendations predictable:  Concept A feasible but performance lags Alt 3, Concept B not recommended for further study.  Keep studying Alt 1 (one new lane) and work with other agencies to resolve degradation issues.  (More camel nose in tent for tolls.)  Caltrans will select preferred alternative this fall (that’s now, isn’t it?)

Another public commenter, from Seal beach – Shelly S  – worries about the toll lanes becoming a “parking lot” in her area, points out all the differences with the 91, and most of all, explains why there are hardly any other public speakers – NOBODY HEARD ABOUT THIS VOTE UNTIL YESTERDAY!  That includes me – Diamond called me last night to let me know.

Nelson and Lalloway want to be able to vote on each option, even though Shawn thinks our Concept B is “not an option at all.”  Spitzer again laments divisiveness coming on.  He is also “not comfortable not having a governing structure to look at excess revenue.”

Moorlach asks about the status of the state legislation regarding low-emission vehicles – they are not signed by the Governor yet – if he vetoed them all this “degradation” worry disappears – but it’s unlikely that he’ll veto them.

Moorlach would like to put this off longer, because building will get cheaper in the future.  Wants to get the community more involved.  No idea where all this revenue is going to go in any case – he thinks the state will take it no matter what, if there’s a revenue stream.

Lalloway – who I had thought was a dependable toll opponent, pero no! – takes great issue with Moorlach and the rest of us referring to tolls as a second “TAX” – it’s a USER FEE, he insists, just like the ten dollars people now have to pay to ride his Great Park Balloon.  Hey – here’s a character running for re-election next year, who is supporting tolls on the 405, let’s start a list, eh?

Long story short, they all vote – with the exception of Moorlach, Miller, Harper and Nguyen – to “move things along” – to start meeting with Caltrans and “looking” at how toll options can help with this woeful degradation – i.e. letting the camel’s nose of tolls a good deal farther into the tent, and inching closer and closer to approving the hated Alternative 3.

(After the vote, Spitzer morphed into Super-Fiery Spitzer, and insisted that he and the majority of the Board were accepting tolling their own county at the point of a gun – at the risk of losing the toll revenue to the state, and very reluctantly to keep the revenue here in the OC.  And if somehow it ended up not working out that way – if, as Moorlach fears, we end up having to send off the revenue elsewhere anyway, then … then … SOME grim consequence!)

Going Forward – we fight for Continuous Access!

My pals, afterward, seem to have accepted defeat on keeping toll lanes off the 405 (and the rest of you OC’ers, it’ll be coming to all of you next!)  They figure their next move should be to make sure there’s not just two or three entrance/exits from the toll lane(s) as planned with Alternative 3, but CONTINUOUS ACCESS, so that even toll-payers (with their handy transponders) can move in and out of the HOT lane(s) wherever they want and be charged accordingly.  This would minimize the negative economic impacts otherwise expected on the corridor cities, and also, it seems, should make Shawn’s one-hot-lane Concept A viable.

I could live with one HOT/HOV lane that had continuous access and that helped to fund one or preferably TWO new general purpose lanes on the outside.  But imagine the technical challenges of charging tolls to cars that can weave in and out of a a continuous-access lane.  WE have been imagining that challenge.  OCTA has REFUSED to even discuss it, saying it’s technically impossible or unfeasible.  But HERE CALTRANS BEGS TO DIFFER WITH OCTA.

This is the disagreement that Diana alluded to near the beginning of her speech. At the engineering meeting she referenced, Caltrans was saying the technology exists now to make a continuous-access HOT lane, and OCTA disagreed.  This is good, like when your otherwise tyrannical parents disagree.  The fight shifts now.  We fight for Continuous Access!

And we never let OC voters forget who voted for TOLLS on the 405. 

  1. Irvine Councilman Jeffrey Lalloway, up for re-election next year…
  2. … (to be continued)


About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist in Orange County. Performs regularly with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem, and at regular concerts at the Huntington Beach Central Library.