The OC Register’s The Current is revisiting the topic of the I-405 Freeway widening between Euclid and Rossmoor. With new circumstances comes an opportunity to discuss the best strategies going forward. If $1.3 billion buys you one lane and $1.4 billion buys you two, or $700 million per lane, then I’d say you’re getting a good deal by installing two lanes at the same time. Throwing in a toll lane is a lark, as the revenues don’t go towards financing the construction of the lanes. And if the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) wants to get into the conversion of carpool lanes into toll lanes, then a countywide ballot initiative should be on the table and a taxpayer educational game plan should be included. But, if we’re motivated out of a fear for what Caltrans is going to do, then what is the point of having an OCTA? Oh, you have to love deep thoughts.
OCTA board to revisit pay-toll idea on 405 project
By JOSEPH PIMENTEL
City officials along the I-405 corridor are upset that the Orange County Transportation Authority has decided to re-examine the addition of a toll lane in the I-405 widening project, which they say will negatively affect their communities and constituents’ livelihoods.
Last month, the OCTA Board of Directors’ voted to revisit the idea of adding a high occupancy toll (HOT) lane to the I-405 project despite announcing last fall – after much public discussion and criticism from city officials – they had chosen an alternative without a toll lane.
"They were wrong then and they are still wrong now," said Seal Beach Councilman Michael Levitt. "I represent 9,000 seniors in Leisure World, and these people don’t want to have to pay a toll in what is normally a diamond (free) lane. … Forget it, my people can’t afford that. These seniors, many of them live off social security. I am dead set against it."
More than 300,000 commuters travel the 14-mile stretch between Irvine and the Los Angeles county border daily, and as the area’s population increases, OCTA officials expect traffic to grow 35 to 40 percent by 2040.
In 2006, Orange County voters passed a half-cent tax increase, Measure M2, to fund one new general purpose lane on I-405 to alleviate one of the most congested freeways in the nation.
Last year, the 17-member OCTA board introduced four options to the estimated $1.3 billion project: a no-build option; alternative one – adding one general-purpose lane on each side; alternative two – adding two general-purpose lanes on each side; and alternative three – the addition of one general-purpose lane and a HOT lane.
OCTA staff favored alternative three, saying residents would benefit by receiving $1.5 billion in toll revenues until 2040 that would go into other transportation projects around the county. But OCTA backtracked after a series of public discussion with residents and city officials banding together to unanimously oppose the idea of what critics called a "Lexus lane."
The board, in what seemed like a compromise, chose alternative one, which adds a general-purpose lane from Euclid Street to the I-605.
Since then, OCTA officials say a large turnover in the agency’s board, in which 10 members were replaced; the state’s new carpool degradation study; and the city of Long Beach’s request to re-do an environmental impact report about traffic congestion in the area have forced the board to re-examine the controversial issue.
OCTA board member John Moorlach was the one who brought up the issue to the board so he could advocate for the building of two new general lanes on the 405 instead of one. In effect, that opened up the conversation again to the creation of a toll road.
OCTA voted on two versions to review – concept A: adding two general-purpose lanes while replacing the existing carpool lane into a pay-toll lane; and concept B: adding one general-purpose lane that will go from Euclid to the I-605 and a shorter second lane.
Northbound, the lane would start at Euclid and end north of Valley View Street. Southbound, the lane would start at Seal Beach Boulevard and end at Euclid.
"The 405 widening is being brought back in its entirety. All versions are under consideration, not just the pay-toll version," said Lori Donchak, a San Clemente councilwoman and member of the OCTA board.
Some city officials are speculating the board’s decision to revisit the issue is seen as a pre-emptive move because of what is going on in neighboring Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority recently implemented two new carpool lanes on the 110 and 10 freeways as part of a "demonstration project" to alleviate congestion and gridlock in the area.
Over 100,000 people have already signed up for a transponder. Those toll lanes are expected to bring Los Angeles County annual revenues of $20 million, according to the MTA.
OCTA board Vice Chairman Shawn Nelson said the board needs to "stay ahead of the game" and pay attention to the state’s fiscal crisis in case Caltrans does decide to take over the project and add their own toll lanes.
He said Caltrans has the final say in the 405 project, but the board does have significant influence.
"We have a tremendous partnership with Caltrans. But we can’t be naïve. We have to do what’s best for the citizens of Orange County," said Nelson.
"We have to remember Caltrans runs the show," he said. "This is not a popularity poll. We have to be smart. Caltrans may be already deciding on doing this (adding a toll lane), so it’s either we do this on our time and our way and keep the money or let Sacramento do it and let them keep the money."
City, county leaders resist
Still, city officials along the I-405 corridor make it clear that they will not support any kind of tolls on the I-405.
Moorlach, a member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors whose district includes Newport Beach and Costa Mesa, said a plan adding a toll lane is not what voters envisioned when they approved Measure M2.
"The residents of Orange County paid for that freeway. They are paying for M2. They were under the impression they were going to get one new lane in each direction based on their vote," said Moorlach, who favors adding two general-purpose lanes.
"I am not supportive of inserting a toll lane. It’s not what my constituents wanted. To change it without getting their input, I think is disturbing. It’s nice to have, but it’s for people who can afford to do it," he said. "If we’re already constructing one new lane, why don’t we spend a little extra money and make it two?"
Los Alamitos Councilman Troy Edgar, who signed a letter against the toll lane idea last year, said he, along with the other officials along the corridor, "stand adamantly opposed" to any toll lanes and "that’s not going to change."
Residents were also surprised that the board decided to revisit the issue after overwhelmingly opposing it last year.
"It was clear from the response by the communities at all the workshops and public meetings that none wanted a HOT lane, but preferred a different configuration," said Costa Mesa resident Geoff West. "(OCTA wants) the HOT lane for the toll revenue – it’s that simple."
Nelson said he understands that this is a hot button issue with residents and wants to make it clear no decision has yet been made.
He said there’s no timeline to decide and they will weigh in all of their options.
"We can see where the trend is going," Nelson said. "You’re either the guy who comes out with the latest designer jeans or the guy who sticks with the old stuff and goes broke.
"We want to be ahead of the curve and see where the trends are going. We are considering all of our options. We want to have ownership in this project. It’s either we are in control or at somebody’s control. We don’t want to be in someone’s control. We want to drive the bus in this situation."
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FIVE-YEAR LOOK BACKS
Guess who didn’t like the Grand Jury report on employee benefits (see MOORLACH UPDATE — My Seat — May 16, 2013 and MOORLACH UPDATE — The Current — May 20, 2013)? Stuart Pfeifer of the LA Times covers the reaction in “Rallying Union Workers Assail O.C. Grand Jury – County employees complain to supervisors that the panel’s report on benefis was one-sided.” Oh my gosh, someone would dare disagree with a Grand Jury report? In the last ten years, the unfunded actuarial accrued liability for the County’s pension system has grown more than 500 percent. I’d say, on this one, the Grand Jury was on to something.
About 150 unionized county workers rallied before the Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to protest a grand jury report that criticized benefit increases it said could cost $75 million this fiscal year alone.
The workers rose to their feet to support the president of the sheriff’s deputies union as he criticized the Orange County Grand Jury’s findings and accused the panel of conducting a one-sided investigation. Wayne Quint, president of the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, called on the board to appoint an independent investigator to study the grand jury’s findings.
"The allegations contained in that report are suspect and misleading — if not, in fact, false," Quint said.
Supervisors took no action on the issue but invited workers to provide more information to them to consider in reviewing the grand jury report later this year.
The grand jury has issued three critical reports this year about the county’s human resources department, the most recent report targeting bonuses and other perks for county workers negotiated by the department.
Now the workers — and members of the Office of Human Resources –are fighting back. They say the grand jury ignored their offers to testify about the allegations and the history behind those added benefits.
One human resources employee faxed a letter to the grand jury Tuesday, saying she believes it was "reprehensible" that the panel reached its findings without interviewing her and others who asked to testify.
"I think the question needs to be asked: Who is pulling the strings of this puppet grand jury?" asked Jeri Muth, an employee relations manager. "To summarily dismiss those who could have provided you with substantiated data, the facts and a different perspective is reprehensible."
Lisa Major, another human resources manager, also questioned the grand jury investigation.
"If you don’t talk to everybody, how can your report be fair and balanced?" Major said. "The grand jury is supposed to be a watchdog of county government. My question is, Who’s watching the watchdog?"
Major said she called the grand jury’s Santa Ana offices in January and asked to testify about her department. She said she did not receive a return call.
At least four other employees wrote to the grand jury and asked to be interviewed. They received form letters and were not called to testify.
The jury, whose findings are purely advisory, has written about allegations of sexual harassment in human resources and has criticized the department for overspending on a consultant’s contract.
The most recent report, issued last week, alleged that the department has negotiated generous salary and benefit increases with employee unions. Those benefits were approved by the county Board of Supervisors.
The foreman of the grand jury said Monday that the panel has been fair and thoughtful in its review of the department.
"We can’t interview everybody. Otherwise, our whole term will be spent interviewing all the people [who want to be heard]," said Carlos N. Olvera.
"We looked at the letters. If we think … they can provide us some information, then we would talk to them."
Jan Walden, an assistant county executive officer who oversees the Office of Human Resources, declined to discuss the grand jury report.
But she said the benefit increases assailed by the grand jury were requested by managers looking to reward productivity and were approved by the Board of Supervisors.
She said a program that rewards many employees with 2% bonuses for meeting performance goals — approved by the board of supervisors in 1999 — has been widely praised and is considered a nationwide model.
The grand jury questioned whether the $15-million-a-year program was worthwhile because more than 95% of employees receive the bonuses.
"I do believe that there is value in having an effective performance management program," Walden said.
Orange County Treasurer-Tax Collector John M.W. Moorlach said the human resources department is not solely responsible.
"The board approved these changes," Moorlach said. On some issues, "they heard complaints from a lot of us, but they went right on with what the [human resources] office recommended."
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