The Uprising Against O.C. Toll Lanes. Pt 1





“First they came for the 405, and I said nothing for I rarely use the 405.
Then they came to put toll lanes on MY freeway,
and I had no-one left to speak out for me.”
– Niemöller, paraphrased by North, South, and Central OC residents not long from now.

In the run-up to tomorrow morning’s blockbuster OCTA meeting (Nov. 8) – at which OCTA staff will ONCE AGAIN ask the OCTA board to approve the zombie “Alternative 3” (toll lanes on the 405) – I want to start by preaching against PROVINCIALISM in Orange County.

Just part of the concerned, overflow crowd at Oct. 29’s townhall (which OCTA staff and Caltrans refused to attend)

At Oct 29’s standing-room-only townhall meeting on this issue, convened in Westminster, all the officials who spoke out eloquently against the scheme, all the public speakers, and probably nearly all the 150+ attendees, hailed from the “Corridor Cities” – that is, the cities immediately adjacent to and affected by the proposed toll lanes – from Seal Beach, Rossmoor and Los Alamitos down through Westminster, Huntington Beach, Fountain Valley and Costa Mesa.  (It was unnerving to see Allan Mansoor and Jim Righeimer as welcome sights.)

And it’s unmistakeable at the OCTA Board meetings that the only opponents of these toll lanes (at least the only strong, dependable opponents) are the elected officials representing those affected areas – HB’s Matt Harper, Seal Beach’s Gary Miller, Supervisors Moorlach and (usually) Nguyen.  THEY’VE even been chided by the toll troll Todd Spitzer for THEIR provincialism in refusing to go along with such a noble project for the greater good.

Diana Lee Carey calls the meeting to order; mayors and other officials of the affected cities wait to speak, all firmly in opposition to these toll lanes.

I say, ANYONE in Orange County who’s not up in arms about this is the one being selfishly provincial.  Because, as I suggested in the Niemöller paraphrase above, the toll lanes will be coming to YOUR local highway next, after they pull it off here.  Spitzer, Miguel Pulido, Board chairman Winterbottom – the most enthusiastic of the Board’s toll supporters – have made it clear that they want to see a countywide network of interconnecting toll lanes in the coming decade.

That means all of you will be seeing the negative effects that we foresee with our traffic and businesses – You south countiers when they get around to your part of the 5 which is probably next;  Santa Ana (Miguel is practically salivating to rip up your part of the 5);  Orange, Garden Grove and Anaheim when they get around to the 22, 55, and 57.

And it’s YOUR representatives on the Board that aren’t listening – Supervisors Nelson and Spitzer, Irvine’s Lalloway, Anaheim’s Eastman, Garden Grove’s Jones, Mission Viejo’s Ury, La Habra’s Shaw – they should be hearing from you and responding, and there should be plenty of you at tomorrow’s meeting raising holy heck.

I was originally going to call this article “The 405 Uprising” but then I realized I’m playing into that provincialism myself, we need an Uprising Against OC Toll Lanes, period.

What next?  I know a lot of people are going to be reading this who didn’t follow the issue last year as closely as some of us, so there will be some background, but first let’s quickly explain:

 What Do We Have Against OC Toll Lanes?  (and this 405 project particularly)

  • We are a “SELF-HELP” county, a county which has already voted, twice, with Measure M and Measure M2, to raise our own sales tax to pay for our own highway improvements.  We’ve already come up with $1.3 to $1.4 billion for just this 405 improvement alone, PLENTY to just build two new FREE lanes going each way between the 605  and 55 – and that is what will improve traffic flow, and that is what we want.  When the Toll Trolls claim that “the toll lanes will pay for themselves,” as they got Nick Gerda to report, they are engaging in their most offensive lie, which I’ll explain below under “Most Offensive Lie.”  Furthermore, being asked to pay hefty tolls ON TOP of of our years and years of sales tax, just to go at a reasonable speed, is, we believe, to be taxed TWICE.
  • Speaking of Measure M and M2, those measures specified NOTHING about toll lanes, and if they had, they would never have passed.  Supervisor Bates and many others have bellyached over this VOTER BETRAYAL.  And you are right, Pat, so we wish your vote were a little more dependable on this.
  • Simple logic, honest studies, AND the experience of others show that Toll Lanes will ONLY make things better for the folks who can afford (and choose to pay) the hefty tolls – for the rest of us, even MORE of us will be stuck in the same number of free lanes, making traffic even WORSE for us, if you can imagine that.  Or don’t imagine – try the 110 in Los Angeles, where they’ve done the same thing.  The stalwart Moorlach quoted a public commenter from LA in a recent Moorlach Update:

One speaker seemed to mark the proximity of Halloween by stating, “be scared, be very scared.”  What made this particular speaker’s remarks so compelling is that he has commuted for years to Los Angeles in the carpool lanes on the San Diego 405 Freeway to the carpool lanes on the Harbor 110 Freeway.   With the recent conversion of the carpool lanes to toll lanes his commute has become unbearable, as the lanes end in gridlock, backing up the toll lanes.  He had a smooth trip until the pilot project began, and now abhors the last leg of his commute.  Hence, his concluding remarks on converting the current carpool lanes to toll lanes, “be scared, be very scared.”

  • Furious representative of the Seal Beach Chamber of Commerce describes the damage toll lanes would cause him and his members. Photo by Nick Gerda of the Voice.

    Possibly the most compelling reason the politicians and businesses of the “Corridor Cities” are up in arms is because these toll lanes, with their few-and-far-between entrance and exit points, whoosh the most moneyed drivers right past our most important business districts – the car dealerships of Westminster, HB and CM, the Westminster Mall, Bella Terra, South Coast Plaza – resulting in CERTAIN damage to the profits of said businesses and tax revenues of said cities.  And it will be the same when toll lanes come to YOUR town, pal.

  • Just on principle – and what are we OC’ers if not people of principle? – nearly everyone I know, liberal or conservative, despises the further enshrinement of a two-tiered society we would see here, with the 1% rushing by blissfully while the rest of us 99% suffer in worse traffic than ever.  As Diana Lee Carey asks in the magnificent letter she sent to OCTA this week (which I will attach below) – Who (of the public) would benefit from these toll lanes?  Only “high-income families and large corporate entities that can write off transportation expenses.”

The Toll Trolls’ Most Offensive Lie Two Biggest Lies

1. “Any toll lanes would be funded not by taxes, but through bonds paid off by toll revenue.”

 These toll lanes COULD NEVER BE BUILT without first using our $1.3 billion of taxes to build two new lanes.  Then it would cost them an additional $400 million to convert the two inner lanes to HOT (toll) lanes – THAT would be funded by bonds paid off by toll revenue.  So they piggyback on us taxpayers’ $1.3 billion, for which WE GET NOTHING.  (See Lie #2 below.)

This was brought home recently when we asked Caltrans (more explanation about how Caltrans got involved, to come) why they want to make toll lanes in our county and nowhere else that has lotsa traffic, like LA, and their answer was “LA doesn’t have the money to build toll lanes.”  You SEE – they want to make YOU AND ME pay for something we don’t want, that will make our lives worse, but will bring THEM revenue.

2. “Alt. 3 would add one general purpose (free) lane, one HOT (toll) lane, and convert the current HOV (carpool) lane to a HOT lane.”

What’s a lie about this, you ask?   Some OCTA members called ME a liar when I insisted we would get NO NEW FREE LANES out of this scam, but no, THEY’RE the liars.   They want us to think “well, at least we’re getting one more free lane out of this.”  We aren’t.  Pay attention:  Right now we have FIVE FREE LANES.  One of them is a carpool lane that you can use whenever you have a passenger, which most of us frequently do;  it is FREE.

Alt 3 proposes to build two more lanes, one on the outside and one on the inside – just as Alt 2 would do – and then convert the TWO INNER LANES to toll lanes.  Hence:  Five plus two, minus two, equals five.  NO NEW FREE LANES under Alt 3.  And it’s worse than that:  Under current plans Alt 3’s toll lanes will be available to carpools – but only 3-passenger cars and over, and not always for free either.  So the only difference for us middle-class and working-class people is that cars with one passenger will no longer have a carpool lane to use.


I wrote one of my favorite passages on this topic last year, a baroque passage where I compare OCTA staff’s tenaciousness and resourcefulness to a villain in a movie that you think you’ve killed but then rises up with a new weapon and attacks you again, and also compared their consuming hunger for revenues to that of zombies or vampires prowling the streets at night.  I won’t make you read it again.  Instead I’ll link you to a more sober (but still fun) essay from the late Gus “Mayor Quimby” Ayer that puts the OCTA staff’s desperation into a historical context.

This was a hunger that caused OCTA staff, and their sympathizers on the Board, to spend 2012 lying, exaggerating, understating, cherrypicking, and avoiding uncomfortable questions, all in an effort to defeat the locally preferred Alternative 2 and make their cherished Alternative 3 look both desirable and inevitable.  (You will notice, any newbies out there, that I make a great effort to distinguish OCTA staff – an unelected bureaucracy with the natural institutional hungers bureaucracies have – with the OCTA Board – 17 voting members 15 of whom are your elected officials – who COULD, if they desire, slap the staff down.)

When the Toll Trolls withdrew in defeat a year ago, having only mustered six votes for their toll dream, we KNEW and predicted that they would be back this year with some new trick, some new twist.  It’s a very convoluted one, let me try to unwind it for you:

This Year’s Trick:  the Caltrans Kabuki

First who is Caltrans, how do they tie in with OCTA, I wanted to know too, who’s in charge, so I asked around.  It turns out that Caltrans (aka the Department of Transportation) actually OWNS all our highways and makes sure that they keep up to the applicable laws and standards.  But as far as any improvements, Caltrans (which has no money) has ALWAYS deferred decisions (and funding) to the local transportation authority – in our case, OCTA.

And yet all of a sudden this year we have OCTA staff – which we knew was DYING for toll lanes – coming back to us saying “Bad news!  We HAVE to make toll lanes here ourselves or else CALTRANS will come, make toll lanes themselves, and send the money to *gasp* SACRAMENTO!  At least when WE make it we can keep the money here.”  And the Caltrans rep, obviously recruited to be Bad Cop, nods his head menacingly.

Last meeting I went to, as I was walking in, OCTA chairman Darrell Johnson was in the middle of bowing and scraping to the Caltrans rep, “We realize if we don’t do this ourselves you’ll do it and keep the money.”  And the Caltrans rep nodded his head menacingly.  What a load of KABUKI.  (And the majority of the Board, most of them newbies, either takes these threats seriously or pretends to.)

What would be, then, Caltrans’ justification for jumping in and forcing toll lanes on the OC in such an unprecedented way?  Like I said, this is convoluted.  In any case, this first part is LONG ENOUGH, I’ll continue with the whole “degradation” story tomorrow … after we see what happens at the meeting, where, word is, they’re going to vote to DELAY the whole decision.  Come anyway!  Cuz you never know what these tricky people will do…


(after a little drink and swim or whatever)


About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official political troubadour of Anaheim and most other OC towns. Regularly makes solo performances, sometimes with his savage-jazz band The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at, or 714-235-VERN.