Just around the bend: The 405 Toll Lanes we fought so hard against.

One of this blog’s crusades from 2012-14 was against the proposed Toll Lanes on the 405 freeway between Harbor and the 605, what they ended up calling the “405 Improvement Project.” If you click here you’ll find over forty stories we wrote about the issue over those years, stories by myself, Greg, and the late Gus “Mayor Quimby” Ayer, who tragically and prematurely died in the middle of that fight. And we didn’t just write stories, we went to every OCTA meeting, we lobbied, made calls, got city councils to make resolutions, talked on the radio…

But there was no stopping the OC Kleptocracy, the “Masters of the Universe,” from getting their toll lanes, their revenue stream, their gravy train. That was a crusade we lost, unlike our previous successful fight to stop the sale and privatization of the Fairgrounds, our 20-year successful fight to stop Poseidon, and our more recent successful fight to stop the Angel Stadium Heist. Let me try to explain why this mammoth years-long “project” we tried to prevent has been a $1.5 BILLION ripoff of OC taxpayers, voters and drivers:

  • Measure M and M-2 were passed by OC voters – to tax THEMSELVES through sales taxes, very rare for voters to do that – for necessary freeway improvements.
  • The brilliant engineers employed by the OCTA had figured out how to build TWO NEW LANES GOING EACH WAY – TWO NEW NORTHBOUND LANES and TWO NEW SOUTHBOUND LANES, on the chronically congested 13-mile stretch from Harbor to the 605 – without hardly impacting any surrounding property at all. (I’m simplifying just a tiny bit.)
  • This much would cost us taxpayers $1.5 billion of Measure M money, and entail the demolition and lengthening of 17 bridges, over several years, but would be well worth it – think of it, TWO MORE FREE LANES, going each way!
  • But that wasn’t enough for the Masters of the Universe – they insisted that they needed to then change the TWO INNER LANES into expensive toll lanes, and use those tolls as a revenue stream for more construction projects.
  • So you see, for our $1.5 billion and the hassle of putting up with all that construction over the years, YOU GET NOTHING, unless you pay an extra toll to escape the congestion of the new lanes you paid to build.

And we were SURE that if it went to a popular vote, voters would overwhelmingly choose “Alternative 2” – the option of the new free lanes and no tolls.

Well, with all the ruckus we raised against this swindle, we only managed to scare the OCTA board – mostly comprised of elected officials – out of moving forward with it. But the Masters of the Universe HAD to have their toll revenue stream, so the ball was handed off to the unelected bureaucrats of CalTrans.

I assume a lot happened in the 9 years since we gave up fighting, the bridges are all rebuilt, the toll lanes are scheduled to be operational by the end of the year, and the details of our defeat have been publicized and need to be shared here too, as a public service. But before we fast forward to the present, let’s remember the heroes and villains of the FIGHT AGAINST 405 TOLL LANES.

Our biggest politician allies at the time, that I recall offhand, were not coincidentally from the region that would be most affected –

  • Then-Supervisor JOHN MOORLACH who fought this from the OCTA dais tirelessly and articulately – that’s when we became friends;
  • Westminster’s Diana Lee Carey, who discovered the issue before WE did and walked neighborhoods speaking against it, ending up on Westminster Council for a term;
  • and the rightwing Costa Mesa Republicans clustered around the otherwise odious Righeimer and Mansoor – particularly the ill-tempered, foul-mouthed, but hilarious CM Mayor Eric Bever, who I discovered was a punk rocker back when I was. These guys were very sensitive to the impact on shopping experiences like South Coast Plaza, from the ability of drivers to just rocket by, and they’re probably right about that.

Of the hardcore “Toll Trolls” I most remember deploring, there were…

  • The Small Dark Lord of OC Kleptocrats, Miguel Pulido, who at the time seemed like he would be Santa Ana Mayor forever and clearly wanted the toll revenue to fund his Streetcar dream;
  • Faux-libertarian-Republican / slash / lover of “public-private partnerships” and HB Mayor Don Hansen, who fetishized the idea of “choice” like “this gives you the choice of being stuck in traffic or spending ten bucks to get out of it” and whom I last saw entertaining at an OC Business Council luncheon;
  • and the damned unions particularly the Teamsters and Building Trades. How dumb am I, and how dumb was Gus? At least as dumb as Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who at one meeting exasperatedly said, “I don’t know why you union guys are so insistent on Toll Lanes, it’ll be the same amount of work whether we do Toll Lanes or not.” Gus theorized, “The OCTA probably promised Medrano they’d hire a dozen more union busdrivers or something.” Medrano, after a special day of spouting nonsense about how badly his oppressed truckdrivers needed toll lanes (which they would never get to drive in) avoided me after the meeting shouting over his shoulder, “I’ll talk to you later Vern!” and scurrying off as fast as his short fat legs would take him. Finally one day another labor leader, Patrick Kelly, explained to me, “We want the work that’ll come out of all the projects the tolls will eventually fund.” And I could only say duh.

How Could I Forget?

Queen Bee of the OCBC Lucy Dunn was ALWAYS there, lecturing everybody on how “if the public were just educated” they would LOVE the idea of Toll Lanes. The OCBC’s religion is upward transfers of wealth from the public to the wealthy and powerful, they’ve been on the wrong side of EVERYTHING I’ve been involved in, and now I’m fighting their progeny on the Anaheim Council.

OH, and an interesting case:

THIS ambiguous ball of energy known as Carolyn Cavecche was Mayor of Orange and on the OCTA, and used to call me and have long conversations, saying she mostly agreed with me, letting me know what little details I had wrong, giving me gossip; one of her common lines was “Well, I could argue it both ways.” She really could. At some point she was tapped to head OC TAX, which is tied at the hip to OCBC, and from then on she NEVER took my calls. I still kinda like her if only because she comes to meetings, sits on top of file cabinets, and swings her legs back and forth like a little girl.

Most of the Supervisors – Janet Nguyen, Shawn Nelson, Todd Spitzer – were wishy-washy going back and forth on the issue. Finger in the wind no doubt. There was also this PAROCHIAL aspect, where you could count on the politicians from the area the 405 passed through to really care about it, while politicians from other parts of the county were all, leave me alone please.

But now it’s time for our public service announcement. The project is near complete, the money is spent, the toll lanes will be coming soon, and you as a loyal Orange Juice Blog readers have a right to know the details of your servitude. From the OCTA:

The Orange County Transportation Authority Board of Directors today approved the toll policy for the 405 Express Lanes, which is being built as part of the I-405 Improvement Project. The toll lanes run from SR-73 to the I-605 at the Orange County line. 

Vehicles with three or more people, along with motorcycles and vehicles with designated veterans license plates or disabled person license plates, will be able use the 405 Express Lanes for free.

Vehicles with two people will be able to travel on the lanes for free during non-peak hours when the 405 Express Lanes opens.

Solo drivers – and two-person carpools during peak hours – will have the option to pay a toll to use the lanes. Toll revenue collected beyond what it costs to repay the loan to build the express lanes will fund transportation improvements for everyone who travels through the 405 corridor – whether or not they choose to use the express lanes.

Tolls will vary by hour, day of the week, direction of travel and distance traveled, and will be adjusted regularly to ensure a free-flowing commute. Drivers can enter or exit the facility from I-405, SR-73, SR-22 and I-605, as well as at Magnolia Street / Warner Avenue and Bolsa Avenue / Goldenwest Street.

When the 405 Express Lanes opens, drivers on average will pay about $3 to travel the entire 14 miles. The maximum toll rate when the facility opens will be $9.95 from 3-5 p.m. on Fridays if traveling from SR-73 north to the county line.

The toll policy is designed to improve commuting times by maximing the number of vehicles that travel at free-flow speeds.

Additional details can found at 405ExpressLanes.com

All vehicles will be required to have a FasTrak transponder, which can be used on any toll facility in California. To take advantage of the free or discounted tolls for carpoolers on the 405 Express Lanes, drivers must have a switchable FasTrak transponder. Switchable transponders can be purchased through California toll agencies for $15.

OCTA broke ground on the I-405 Improvement Project in 2018 to improve travel times along one of the busiest highways in the nation and accommodate an expected growth in employment, population and housing throughout the region. The 405 Express Lanes, and all other improvements being made as part of the project, are scheduled to open to traffic in late 2023.

I-405 Improvement Project

The $2.1 billion I-405 Improvement Project, now 95% complete, is a cornerstone of fulfilling the promises made to voters through Measure M – Orange County’s half-cent sales tax for transportation improvements.

I-405 in northwest Orange County is one of the most heavily traveled highways in the nation, with more than 370,000 vehicles a day. Drivers routinely face severe congestion in both the regular lanes and the carpool lanes.

In addition to the 405 Express Lanes, the I-405 Improvement Project will help all drivers’ commutes by adding one regular lane in each direction of I-405 between Euclid Street in Fountain Valley and I-605 in Seal Beach.

The project has also greatly benefitted the surrounding communities near I-405 through improvements to local streets and freeway on- and off-ramps, as well as new sidewalks and bike lanes throughout the nine cities adjacent to the project.

The I-405 Improvement Project is financed with a combination of local, state and federal funds, with the majority of funding from Measure M.

The express lanes portion of the project is being funded by a federal Transportation Infrastructure and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan. The loan will be repaid solely by drivers who choose to pay a toll.

Vern again. That is our public service announcement. Happy Driving, you 405’ers. And every now and then, remember that even though we-all paid $1.5 billion to build new lanes, you will still have to pay up to $10 to get out of the traffic on those lanes. And also, now and then, remember that the Orange Juice Blog fought for YOU!

OJB out.

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 vernpnelson@gmail.com, or 714-235-VERN.