Toll-Lane Uprising 2: Delay, Kabuki, and the Staggering Arrogance of Chairman Winterbottom.


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This is OCTA Board Chairman Gregory Winterbottom, in his natural state.  You may remember him a few weeks ago, when Diana Lee Carey finished a speech with the exasperated cry, “And if I hear the term ‘locally preferred alternative’ one more time, I’m gonna have to be carried out of here by security!”  and Greg quickly cracked, “That might not be such a bad idea.”  After which a few people laughed, uncomfortably.

Fancying himself to be possessed of a mordant sense of humor, and also fancying himself to be smarter and wittier than any of his colleagues on the dais, this crustacean has been on the Board for twenty years – clinging like a barnacle to the hull since 1993.  He treats his fellow directors with bonhomie or contempt depending on whether they agree with him, and he treats the lowly public with just plain contempt.

Wait, you say – Winterbottom?  Doesn’t ring a bell.  How is he on the Board – for twenty years even?  He’s an elected official from where??

Nope, Greg is a “public member,” one of two “public members” serving on the 18-member Board, the structure of which Lou Correa put together back when he was a baby assemblyman.

What’s a “public member,” you ask?  Oh, you’ll love this:

15 of the OCTA Board’s 18 members are elected officials – our five supervisors, and then two Mayors or Councilpeople from each supervisorial district for a total of ten, chosen in a manner you don’t want to hear about, you’ll drift off.

There is one non-voting representative of Caltrans, whose job is merely to nod menacingly and say nice things about toll lanes when asked to.

And then there are the two “public members” – named so, we assume, in Lou’s Godlike sense of ironic humor, as they are not chosen by the public, are not accountable to the public, and are the least accessible to the public.  (The other one is Michael Hennessy, a real nice guy, but… it goes without saying that BOTH public members, as isolated from the public and identified with the OCTA bureaucracy as they are, are DYING to put toll lanes on all our freeways.)

Friday morning’s meeting

This Nov. 8 meeting, having been touted so widely as THE ONE where the final decision on toll lanes would be made, was PACKED with concerned members of the public and the press. 

Orange Juice and the OC Register in the house, representing! (I believe I was texting Diamond here, he wanted updates)

There is nothing that disgusts and incommodes Chairman Winterbottom more than the sight and sound of the great unwashed in his hearing room, and he doesn’t much care for the TV cameras there either.  So, a strategy of delay having been already settled on for various reasons, he sent out an e-mail the day before making sure the world knew that the final decision wouldn’t be made that day, and strongly suggesting that nobody should show up.

As 9:00 neared and it became obvious that public and press had not picked up on his subtle hint, with standing room only in the hearing room and the overflow room nearly packed too (Eric Bever cracked last year, “overflow room – sounds like the world’s worst restroom”) the Chairman stormed out in his electric wheelchair to hector the crowd.  We will not be voting on 405 improvements today, we will be voting on delay, so you might not want to stick around.  The meeting hadn’t even started.  His fellow directors – the ones who were already milling about – immediately protested:  These people took their mornings off work and came all the way down here to talk to us, and WE ARE GOING TO LISTEN TO THEM.  Not for the first time that morning, the Chairman was slapped down.

There followed a 90-minute discussion on DELAY – very few folks on this Board are ever at a loss for words (a reticent Eastman more than compensated for by a logorrheac Spitzer or Pulido.) Pretty much everyone on the dais wanted to delay the vote.  Toll supporters wanted to delay till Dec 9 (which ended up passing unanimously) so they could get assurances from the Caltrans chief that the state wouldn’t come in and take all the OCTA’s precious toll revenues should Alt 3 pass.  Pat Bates thought there was enough reason, enough unanswered questions, to justify delaying till the spring, while Moorlach said “A whole YEAR would be fine with me.” 

THAT kind of reckless talk frightened the OCTA brass, who protested that the projected costs go up the longer this is delayed.  I tend to be cynical about such claims, which they could be manufacturing out of thin air – seen ‘em do it.  What really troubles them is that a one-year delay of toll lanes would mean a one-year delay of their revenue gravy train.

Then it was time for what most of us were there for – to speak to the Board about our reasons for being against (or for) the toll lanes.  But before the public could get started, Winterbottom decreed:  “There are so many of you here today, I’m gonna ask you to speak for just one minute each, and only on the topic at hand, which is whether or not we should delay this vote.  Nothing else.”

Once again, his colleagues rose up against him, all of them looking good in comparison.  Again Moorlach was first.  “I move that these members of the public can speak for three minutes about ANYTHING THEY WANT TO!”  There was pretty much unanimous agreement to that.

That’s when Winterbottom outdid himself:  “Aw, come on, we’ve heard all these people before, we know what they’re gonna say.”  PANDEMONIUM from the crowd, and the dais too!  Moorlach called Winterbottom patronizing, which was a very gentle choice of words.  (For the record, there were plenty of people there for the first time, and the rest of us had new things to say.)

Now we’re trying to determine:  How does one remove a “public member” from a Board?

Let me get back to what I didn’t finish in my last segment:  OCTA staff’s sudden lament that they HAVE to put in toll lanes after all or else scary CALTRANS will do it themselves and take all the money off to Sacramento, and what is Caltrans’ justification for allegedly threatening such an unprecedented move?

The answer would be a convenient convergence of state and federal law.  The state law, less troublesome, allows single-occupant Low-Emission Vehicles (LEV’s) to drive in carpool lanes for free.  But last year’s meddlesome Federal Law known as MAP-21 (acronym for Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, barf) mandates that LEV’s should not have to travel under 45MPH at rush hour, more than a certain percentage of days each month.  This led to a “degradation” study [degradation being contemporary bureaucratese for "lanes that suck too regularly for Prius drivers"]  showing that, indeed, our carpool lanes are “degraded.”  And we have only until sometime this JANUARY to do something about it, or risk losing Federal funding!

So, even though only 1.5% of the folks who use our carpool lanes are single-occupant LEV drivers, and even though many other counties’ carpool lanes are also “degraded,” Caltrans is supposedly threatening to jump the shark if WE refuse to jump it, and impose carpool lanes on Orange County alone, to save us from violating Federal law, and risk funding.

Nine of the current Board members are new this year, have been hearing this threat for months.  And most of the members, new and old, either seem to take the threat seriously, or conveniently pretend to because they really want tolls.  I won’t presume to guess at this point who falls into which camp.

But, HELLO?  There are a lot of loose, clanky hinges holding together this contraption of a threat.

  • This threatened loss of federal funding sounds like a bad thing.  Turns out to be, guess how much?  $12 million.  By comparison, this project is a BILLION-point-3, and please bear in mind the difference between million and billion.
  • This Map 21 is not a “prescriptive” law – that is, it doesn’t ORDER us to “make toll lanes if your HOV lanes are degraded or ELSE.”  It simply directs us to address the problem SOMEHOW.  And it stands to reason that some of our preferred options – say, building the two new free Alt. 2 lanes and changing the 2+ HOV lane to a 3+ HOV lane (with LEV’s AND continuous access) would address the “degradation” as well or better… but OCTA refuses to study that because it’s not what they really want.
  • Caltrans has never imposed on a county the way they’re supposedly threatening to now.  They have ALWAYS deferred to the desires of a county’s transportation agency.  And in fact, as the Moorlach reports today:

The Director of the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) is Malcolm Dougherty.  After Monday’s OCTA Regional Planning and Highways Committee meeting, it was recommended that OCTA meet with Mr. Dougherty, which was accomplished a couple of days later.  “Was Caltrans going to force toll lanes on Orange County?”  Negative, was the response.  To paraphrase, the message was something like, “Caltrans will collaborate with OCTA and review the many tools available in the tool box to improve traffic flow;” with emphasis on the word “collaboration.”  Talk about a classic “straw man” argument!  We’ve been led to believe that Caltrans is forcing the toll road solution on us, which has been an apparent misrepresentation of their position.

Is there really nothing can be done about this existential MAP-21 threat and its looming January deadline, which the Board treats as some sort of gun to their heads?  (The always-confusing Spitzer glowers to the Times, “I’m just frustrated as an elected official in this county that I’m being rushed into a decision.”)

Um, of course there is, duh.  Jose Solorio put it perfectly at the Oct 29 Westminster townhall:  “It sounds like Orange County is being punished for a technicality, and technicalities can be fixed in the legislature.  That’s what a legislature is there for.”  When you hear of a rider exempting the OC from that particular clause of MAP-21 sometime soon, carried by Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) and/or Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) remember that you read it here first.  Again, duh.  Why does it take us scruffy bloggers to make these things happen?

Then that gun will be removed from their head.  What’ll they come up with next?

Couple more little things from yesterday’s meeting:

Bribery?

“YOU get a car! And YOU get a car!”

Todd Spitzer, possessing the superhuman ability to take every position eloquently, passionately, and in great detail as though he is buffeted about by multiple winds which confer on him that gift, seems to be most strongly moved by the shiny Toll Revenue vision.  So he proposed (if I’ve got this right) a large confab of mayors, politicos and other interested parties from the Corridor Cities, to get a sense of what transportation projects they’d like to see in their own areas, to be funded by the hoped-for Toll Revenues.

And then, more than one local politician, when it came time to stride up to the microphone, added to their prepared comments, “We will not be BRIBED into accepting toll lanes.”  That’s not what you meant to do, Todd, is it?  Bribe them into accepting toll lanes?

“Just lie back and enjoy it…”

Another thing we keep hearing from toll supporters on the Board, the staff, Caltrans, etc. is that the toll lanes are going to happen, but first there must be “buy-in,” “acceptance,” “involvement,” “inclusion of the point of view” of the affected communities that stubbornly reject them.

This got me wondering:  Is that how these men treat women who say “no” to them?  “Come on, this IS going to happen.  You just have to say yes, and we’ll make this good for both of us.  Come on honey, you won’t regret this…”

Well, rather than wrap things up with a tasteless rape metaphor, I believe I’ll snag a couple good paragraphs from today’s Moorlach Update.   HEEERE’S Johnny!

“Another observation is that those who have been studying this long enough can clearly see that Alternative 2 is the optimum solution and they communicated that loud and clear at yesterday’s OCTA Board meeting.  But, those pushing Alternative 3, the toll lane alternative, never mention Alternative 2.  Yesterday’s OC Register had a letter to the editor from the Chair of OCTA that only referred to Alternatives 1 and 3, when Alternative 2 moves traffic at the same percentages as Alternative 3. 

“When recently asked to consider a modified Alternative 2, which narrows down to one lane in the northbound side of the freeway bordering Seal Beach, staff put up a slide that showed it was not as helpful as the original Alternative 2.  We know that!  The comparison was to be between Alternative 1 and the modified Alternative 2.  The intellectual dishonesty throughout this ordeal (“decision making process”) has been astounding and heart rending.

“The best approach is to honor Measure M2 and build the one lane promised on each side of the 405 and a second lane on both sides at the same time, as some 14 to 17 bridges will be modified to accommodate the four additional lanes.  With the conclusion of the West County Connectors project and the addition of four lanes, then review the status of the traffic throughput.  If more needs to be done, then consider modifying the occupancy levels in the carpool lanes and move up from there. 

To jump to a toll lane alternative immediately is too severe and dramatic.  The residents of Orange County pay for improvements to the County’s roads with every taxable retail purchase they make.  They should be given the courtesy of a systematic approach to this matter and not be told that draconian solutions will be forced on them.  Thank you, Mr. Malcolm Dougherty, for clearing the air.  I look forward to collaborating with you and with my constituents on this critical public policy matter.”

Amen, John.  Amen.


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.