Orange County taxpayers are about to be conned out of about $1.3 billion.
The Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) has devised an audacious scheme that would use Measure M2 tax dollars to construct toll lanes on the San Diego (405) Freeway between Seal Beach and Costa Mesa. These lanes will do little to improve congestion, and will primarily benefit only those who are willing and able to pay tolls on top of their share of $600 million in Measure M2 taxes allocated to 405 Freeway improvements. That's not what we all voted for, is it?
That's one of three options OCTA is considering to supposedly improve traffic on the 405, and it's the one its staff is pushing for the hardest. OCTA officials tried to run their shell game in Costa Mesa, but thankfully a skeptical City Council and residents didn't fall for it.
Here was their pitch: OCTA's Alternative 3 would provide an additional general purpose lane and two express lanes in each direction through the city, requiring the demolition and rebuilding of the 3-year-old, $7-million bridge over the 405 at Fairview Road.
Three additional lanes in each direction sounds great, right? It conjures up images of sailing down the 405 at 65 mph during rush hour, the top down, the wind in our hair and the radio blasting a No Doubt tune.
Unfortunately, that's not the truth.
The freeway through Costa Mesa now has seven and sometimes eight lanes (including one for carpooling) in each direction. Thanks to Costa Mesa's proactive approach to improving traffic through town, our section of the 405 has already been built out to full width. Option 3 would hijack the carpool lane and turn it into a toll lane, add another toll lane, and leave commuters with the exact same amount of free (general purpose) lanes through Costa Mesa (seven and sometimes eight).
Up north in Fountain Valley, it's the same ploy. OCTA touts adding two toll lanes and a general purpose lane on both the northbound and southbound lanes of the 405, but in fact, they are adding two toll lanes and re-designating the carpool lane as a general purpose lane. The result is that the 405 northbound Euclid Street bottleneck is not addressed, and the taxpayers get no additional lanes unless they agree to pay, yet again, to use the toll lanes.
Where we now have five lanes (four general and one carpool) we will still have only five lanes after Option 3's $1.7 billion has been spent.
Simply put, Option 3 leaves the freeway as it is and adds two lanes only usable by those who have FasTrak toll transponders and who are willing and able to pay for every trip. At $4 to $5 a shot, a typical commuter will add $160 to $200 to their monthly commuting costs.
In their further sleight of hand, OCTA touts free high occupancy (3+ passengers) access to the toll lanes; however, this only occurs when traffic is light and any benefit of using the lanes is minimal. During heavy traffic everyone will have to pay to use the toll lanes, no matter how many passengers they carry.
There's so much wrong with OCTA's plan it's hard to detail it all in a short space, but for me, it boils down to this: How can $600 million tax dollars committed by the voters (and paid by all) to reduce freeway congestion legally be redirected to build an exclusive four-lane toll road that benefits only those who can afford paying tolls to traverse the heart of Orange County?
OCTA is taking public comments through July 17, and its board is expected to vote on an alternative soon after that. Costa Mesa's council unanimously supports Option 2, which provides two new free (general purpose) lanes, which will address the bottlenecks and improve commutes for everyone with no extra toll charges.
I'd encourage Orange County residents to educate themselves on this $1.7-billion boondoggle, which will require the demolition and rebuilding of each bridge spanning the 405 from Seal Beach to Costa Mesa and snarl traffic for a decade, at http://www.octa.net and give them your two cents (or maybe your $1.7 billion) worth of advice.
It's literally highway robbery with the taxpayers as victims, and it's time to fight back.
ERIC BEVER is the mayor of Costa Mesa.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun