Mansoor’s new Toll Lanes bill deserves bipartisan support from the full OC delegation.


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Allan Mansoor’s promised AB 2036 to address the Toll Lanes controversy in our county – let’s say, to bring this important transportation question under democratic control in a county that’s voted to tax itself for its own freeway improvements – has gone through a few changes, but is now ready to write about and will soon be voted on. 

It’ll be going first to the – duh – Assembly Transportation Committee on Monday April 21.  And whom does Orange County have on that committee but Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton) and Tom Daly (D-Anaheim) – as well as close neighbor Bonnie Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) whose ex-husband Alan represents much of the threatened community in Congress.  We’re going to need the support of all our OC delegation to get this thing through, so my arguments below for the bill’s necessity are addressed primarily to these politicians.  But hell, if you live, drive, vote and/or pay taxes in the OC, you should read this too, and back me up with your own legislators.

This bill, drawn up in reaction to certain institutional forces’ tireless attempts to force toll lanes onto our freeways that we’ve already paid for (starting with the 405), will prevent OCTA or CalTrans from making such a scurvy move without a 2/3 countywide vote.   The bill now only applies to this county, Orange County, for good reasons which are explained in the bill’s language, AND below.  Check it out – the FIRST TWO REASONS we need democratic protection from the constant toll lane attempts have to do with Measure M and Measure M2, which are sales tax increases approved by 2/3 of OC voters specifically to “improve” our county’s freeways:

1. OCTA’s Toll Lane Schemes: a Theft of Measure M Tax Money

The OCTA proposal for the 405 known these last couple years as “Alternative 3″ consists of building two new free lanes, and then converting two lanes which WERE free (including the current carpool lane) into “HOT” or toll lanes.  The price of building the two new lanes (though it’s been whittled down lately) is around $1.3 billion, which would be paid for by our Measure M sales tax money;  the conversion of two lanes into toll lanes would cost an extra $.4 billion, which would be paid for by bonds floated on the expected toll revenue.

For this reason, the expert salesmen advocating for tolls claim that their toll lanes would NOT be built using our Measure M tax money, but would totally finance themselves.  Just a moment’s thought shows this to be the most deceptive of spin.  Go ahead, think about it.  First, these two toll lanes can only be built because two new free lanes are being built with our money – the creation of toll lanes would “piggyback” on our sales tax receipts. 

Secondly, 99% of us taxpaying drivers – which is about how many of us would choose NOT to pay the hefty tolls – would be getting NOTHING out of our huge $1.3 billion expense … or to be painstakingly honest, we would be going from having FOUR free general purpose lanes and ONE free carpool lane to having FIVE free general purpose lanes – NEARLY no change.  For $1.3 billion. 

And not ONLY for $1.3 billion.  We are talking about the region’s taxpaying drivers parting with $1.3 billion AND putting up with FIVE YEARS of disruptive construction tearing down and rebuilding SEVENTEEN bridges … and THEN getting nearly nothing out of the whole ordeal.

Strengthening our interpretation is the following exchange.  2013 saw the beginning of what seems to be a charade, where OCTA brass claim that if they don’t impose toll lanes here and keep the receipts in the county, then CalTrans (justified by a dubious reading of a Federal guideline named MAP21) will impose toll lanes themselves and send the receipts to Sacramento.  In any case, when Westminster Councilwoman Diana Carey asked CalTrans why they don’t build toll lanes in LA instead, their answer was that LA doesn’t have the taxpayer funds to build the new lanes and toll lanes.  Bingo – even THEY were admitting they’re hoping to use Measure M funds for something OC taxpayers don’t want.

And lastly, a taxpaying OC driver who bites the bullet and pays the toll because they can afford to or are desperate that day will be getting taxed TWICE.

2. OCTA’s Toll Lane Schemes: a Betrayal of Measure M Voters

It’s pretty hard to get 2/3 of the voters of a conservative county like ours to vote to tax themselves, on two different occasions … but the authors of Measure M and M2 pulled it off.  That’s how much we OC drivers want to see our freeways widened and otherwise improved.  If the folks who voted yes on Measure M and M2 had had the slightest inkling that their taxes would be diverted into creating a toll lane regime that would either tax them twice or else leave them with absolutely no new lanes for all their expense and patience, do you really think it would have passed?

Well, for better or worse, Mr Mansoor’s AB 2036 will answer that question.  Maybe the case CAN be made to the voters, that they’ll be better off with toll lanes on that 13-mile stretch of the 405, and all the other places OCTA dreams of putting them in the future.  Tireless toll-lane advocate and OCBC head Lucy Dunn certainly thinks so.  “All the public needs is more EDUCATION,” she frequently chants, and then you and I will finally come around to seeing how creating this new OCTA revenue scheme will redound to all our benefit even if most of us can’t afford to or will choose not to use it.  Well, let’s give Lucy’s theory a chance, and pass Allan’s bill!

3. OCTA’s Toll Lane Schemes will Decimate Local Businesses.

Sure, your average OC citizen goes about their lives in blissful apathy, taking notice of nothing unless it’s either on FOX or slaps them upside the head personally.  But for right now the strongest opposition to putting toll lanes onto the 405 (which I remind you is just the FIRST highway OCTA wants them on) comes from the businesses along that stretch of freeway, and the mayors and city councils who represent those businesses.  The Westminster Mall, the car dealerships of Westminster, Huntington Beach, and Costa Mesa in particular, and the Chambers of Commerce of the six “corridor cities.”  They know perfectly well, from both logic and the experience of other cities, that a “Lexus Lane” allowing more affluent drivers to whiz by their stores, while severely limiting the freeway exits these drivers can access, will wreak havoc on their bottom line.

AND on the tax receipts of these corridor cities.  And I don’t want to hear any schadenfreude from you North and South county politicians – as I point out below, this will be coming to your hoods next.

4.  OCTA’s Toll Lane Schemes will NOT alleviate traffic.

If it seems counterintuitive to you to hear claims that adding two expensive toll lanes to a congested highway without adding any free lanes will somehow relieve the congestion, well, you’re not crazy!  You are just being spun.  The forces on OCTA and elsewhere that want toll lanes on OC freeways try mightily to give the impression that their concern is only secondarily with reaping toll revenue, and primarily with what they vaguely call “throughput.”  And as the late Gus Ayer proved, they “make their case” with such shady tactics as cherrypicking stats from different contradictory studies

But your intuition is correct – a scenario like “Alternative 3″ will obviously improve driving time, quite dramatically, for those few who can afford the toll;  but OCTA’s  own studies show that, for the vast majority of us who can’t or won’t, Alternative 2 (TWO NEW FREE LANES, which we can afford) is what will improve OUR “throughput.”

5.  South, North and Central County, we’re all in this together.

The toll lane enthusiasts have tried hard, and often successfully, to divide and conquer us – to paint us West County troublemakers affected by their 405 scheme as selfishly provincial, and to convince politicians from the rest of the county that giving us what we need will necessarily come at the expense of transportation projects THEY want.  But several toll lane enthusiasts on the OCTA Board – Santa Ana mayor Miguel Pulido, 2013 Board chairman Greg Winterbottom, the mercurial Todd Spitzer – have let it slip more than once that they are envisioning a countywide network of interlocking toll lanes on ALL our “freeways.” (Pulido is most nakedly chomping at the bit to start in on his chunk of the 5, and rustle up enough funding for his long-dreamed-of streetcar.)

So, this is something that should NOT just be the concern of Assemblymen Mansoor and Allen, and Senator Correa, who represent the “corridor cities” by the 405, but the whole OC delegation.  What did that preacher say after World War II - “First they came for the .. etc. etc. … and then when they came for me there was nobody left to speak for me.”

6. Building Trades’ Support of Toll Lanes Makes No Sense.

Jim AdamsCERTAIN unions – the ones who seem to be on the wrong side of so many things lately, whose sole overriding concern is immediate jobs over all else – that is, the Building Trades and Teamsters – have decided to agitate for Alternative 3 (Toll Lanes) on the 405 rather than Alternative 1 or 2, and will therefore probably oppose Mansoor’s bill.  This makes no sense, but some of us worry about their possible influence over Assembly Democrats Quirk-Silva and Daly.  After all, it was the Building Trades’ leader Jim Adams (right) who convinced Sharon to (temporarily?) renounce her opposition to the Poseidon Desal plant, for the cause of jobs jobs jobs.

At least with Poseidon, these unions’ position makes sense – there WOULD be two thousand temporary construction jobs involved (although many of us don’t consider that to be a worthwhile trade-off against the environmental concerns, the cost to taxpayers and ratepayers, and the overall scumminess AND incompetence of the corporation involved.)  BUT nobody can sensibly explain why these unions should favor, and fight for, Alternative 3 over the non-toll alternatives for expanding the 405.  Supervisor Shawn Nelson said it well: “I don’t know why you labor people are so gung-ho for toll lanes;  there’ll be the same amount of concrete poured no matter which alternative we choose.”  I would add that they’re more likely to get to work quicker with the non-controversial Alt 1 or 2, as the toll lane alternative will certainly be delayed for years by lawsuits.  It makes you suspect some sort of secret deal is involved.

The Teamster leader Ernesto Medrano showed up at an OCTA meeting in late 2012 expressing Teamster support for toll lanes.  The bulk of his “case” was lamenting how badly the 405 traffic impacts his union truck drivers.  It didn’t seem to have occurred to him that if Alternative 3 happened, these truck drivers would NOT get to drive in the toll lanes, but would be stuck in the five other lanes with all the rest of us.  When I tried to point that out to him after the meeting, he scurried out the door as quickly as his little legs would carry him, hollering over his shoulder, “I’ll talk to you later, Vern!”

Sharon and Tom, Jose Solorio will back me up on this:  No matter what Jim Adams and the others tell you, toll lanes do not mean more union work than improving the freeways WITHOUT toll lanes.  You can ignore the building trades on this one.

7. Lexus Lanes: Further Entrenching the Two-Tier Society.

Conservatives and liberals alike, in the OC, have recoiled at the thought of the top 1% of our increasingly stratified society happily flying past the rest of us stuck in our traffic just because they can afford it.  As someone who’s generally considered Republicans and conservatives to be the guardians of the interests of the 1%, I’ve been surprised and glad to see that populist reaction from so many OC Republicans.  With Alternative 2, we can afford to make 405 traffic better for ALL of us.

8.  OCTA’s Unaccountability and Arrogance.

It’s easy for this to slip into “reasons to oppose toll lanes on the 405 and OC in general” rather than what it should be, “reasons that Allan’s bill should pass so that OC voters can decide if they want toll lanes.”  Well, two years of dealing with the forces of the OCTA who are hellbent on tolls – that’s the leadership of the staff (under Will Kempton and now Darrell Johnson) and always nearly half of the Board who are convinced by them – would be enough to persuade anybody that a lot of power needs to be snatched back from this extremely arrogant and unaccountable bureaucracy.

Examples abound of their rudeness and dismissiveness to Board members and members of the public who question their assertions and priorities.   Current Board chairman Winterbottom‘s “Why should we listen to these people?  We know what they’re gonna say!” was an iconic moment, coming a month or so after he joked that “it might be a good idea” if toll critic Councilwoman Carey was dragged out by security.  Or ask former Board member Lorri Galloway, who never received an answer when following up on my suspicion that Kempton had inflated costs of Alt 1 and 2 by $100 million.  Possibly the recipient of staff’s most egregious disrespect has been John Moorlach, Supervisor of the affected area, whose many constructive ideas for improving non-toll alternatives have been invariably dismissed out of hand, rudely, and with startlingly obvious “intellectual dishonesty.”

OCTA is full of brilliant engineers, who have solved the problem of how to add two lanes in each direction to the 405 without taking anyone’s property.  But they have been led by arrogant and dishonest men who will lie and cheat to get their coveted revenue stream, who think they know better than any of the public or our elected representatives, and who need to be put in their place.

9.  Sharon and Tom, the DPOC came out against 405 Toll Lanes.

This is something our Democratic lawmakers should remember, as they prepare to have their ears lobbied off by the smooth talkers who want toll lanes:  In September of 2012 when this issue was first very hot, the Democratic Party of Orange County voted 37-1 to oppose toll lanes on the 405.  The resolution, written by our own Greg Diamond, can be found here;  it contains much of the same arguments I’ve made above. 

Republican lawmakers, the OCGOP never did make such a resolution, but that’s certainly not because this is a partisan or left-vs-right thing;  probably most of the energy fighting toll lanes in the West county has come from very conservatives Republicans, from … well, let’s just see…

10.  Who supports, who opposes.

Most of the push FOR Toll Lanes comes from those who have something to gain from it somehow.  It’s understandable that the institutional forces within the OCTA want a new revenue stream.   But probably the loudest calls for it come from a bipartisan class of politicians, ex-politicians and lobbyists centered around Curt Pringle and his OC Business Council and OC Tax – people we sometimes unkindly refer to as the county’s “kleptocrats” – your Lucy Dunn, Reed Royalty, now Carolyn Cavecche.  Generally professional lobbyists who love what they call “public-private partnerships,” they adore big projects with revenue streams flowing up from the public which they can steer to their friends, while getting a little percentage for themselves.  There are big projects that Santa Ana “mayor-for-life” Miguel Pulido just lives for, but can only do with the monies expected from OC toll lanes.

We’ve already looked quizzically at the unexplained insistence of Building Trades and the Teamsters for toll lane alternatives over non-toll freeway improvements.  Something is going on behind the scenes there that we haven’t figured out.

The influence of “Reason Foundation” extremist libertarian ideologues, who simply believe in the privatization of all public property for profit, has been exaggerated.  The only such voice I’ve noticed in this debate was former HB mayor Don Hansen who has seemed to disappear for a while.  In fact there was a time when Don seemed indistinguishable from the anti-labor Republicans running Costa Mesa – the Righeimer crowd – but this controversy certainly separated them:  Righeimer wisely and passionately pursuing the self-interest of his business community while Hansen followed his ideology into obscurity.

So then, who opposes Toll Lanes on OC’s freeways?  A huge swath of Orange County from left to right, from me and Greg Diamond and the Ayerite Democrats in Huntington Beach, the DPOC, all the way to Righeimer, Moorlach, Mansoor and Tom Tait on the right.  People who believe that taxpayers should get what they pay for,  voters should get what they’re promised, and a move as big as foisting toll lanes on the busiest section of freeway in the world should be approved by the voters who would be financing it. And that there should be and will always be public property – a COMMONS – which we should all care for and get to use.

And THAT’S who, I submit, OC’s lawmakers should be siding with.

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Well, friends, what do you think?  Have I made the case well enough, to our fine lawmakers?  Will those of you in Sharon’s and Tom’s districts call them up and back me up this week – their big Transportation Committee vote is a week from Monday – the 21st.  Tell ‘em YES on Mansoor’s AB 2036, for Democracy on OC Freeways!

Sharon - 714-681-2308. 

Tom – 714-939-8469. 

It’ll be interesting to see which of our politicians, Republican and Democrats, side with the people over the insiders and kleptocrats, and it’ll be good to see during this election season.

Will Sharon and Tom resist the blandishments of the Building Trades and Teamsters this time around?  Most of us hope so.  I bet they will.

Tom, and Senator Lou Correa, have sometimes also been close to the people in Anaheim we call “kleptocrats.”  But will they stand up for the little guy, the taxpayer, against them, this time?  We hope so!  After all, they made the right call on wasteful, crooked Enterprise Zones last year, enraging the kleptos.

Assemblyman Travis Allen has as much of the affected area in his district as Assemblyman Mansoor, so we wish he would be as outspoken on the issue as Mansoor is.  He told me “toll lanes don’t make sense for this county” when I tracked him down at the regsitrar’s office, but he seemed to have been avoiding the issue for a while.  We hope he becomes as strong on protecting our freeways as he has been on our fire pits, and that he keeps the kleptos he’s been visiting with at arm’s length!

What other Republican assemblymen do we have?  I’ve written a lot negative about Diane Harkey lately, but she was a real fireball when we needed her against the Fairgrounds Swindle a few years ago.  And this is very similar, Diane – hidden greedy forces trying to profit off the people’s property!  It will be popular for your BOE run as well, to stand up for our county’s FREEways.  Anyone know Don Wagner, Curt Hagman… who else have we got in there…

Will Governor Brown sign this bill if it gets through both houses?  He should, because he believes firmly in giving political power back to localities and the people;  he should respect our voting to tax ourselves with Measure M rather than relying on Sacramento, and that’s how it should be presented to him.

Finally, this bill is just one weapon we have at hand to keep toll lanes off our freeways, but let’s see if we can make it happen!  There’s a lot of other news on the subject that I’m keeping out of this post but will report on soon.  For now, let’s get AB 2036 through the Assembly Transportation Committee!


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.