The largest toll road network in Orange County has sold $2.3 billion in bonds to refinance three toll roads. As a result of the bond issue, drivers will be required to pay tolls until 2053 instead of 2040. This comes at a time when fewer and fewer people use these roads and while the agency’s debt is increasing. The California state treasurer’s office released a study in July indicating that the toll road network could default on its bonds issued in 1999 if its debt wasn’t refinanced. Doing this would protect the agency’s credit rating and reduce the increase of toll fees.
While we’re in that general area of Orange County, the OCTA Board recently voted to expand the 405 Freeway without the controversial toll lanes. Residents of the communities served by the 405 Freeway denounced the initial plan and successfully persuaded the Board to postpone a vote on the plan in November. Since then, legislators stepped in by threatening to prepare a bill that would bar toll lanes on this particular stretch of road. Even OCTA CEO Darrell Johnson acknowledged that the concept was forming a wedge within the agency itself. Nevertheless, OCTA will pursue a widening of the freeway, ending the controversy for most residents.
In Orange County, residents continue to fume over the proposed HOT lanes for the 405 Freeway. To quell the furor, the Orange County Transportation Authority Board, in response to a committee recommendation reported in our last eNewsletter, discussed the issue at its most recent regular meeting. A lengthy discourse ensued, with most attendees expressing disgust at the proposal but a few other groups expressing support for the lanes. The proposal would add toll lanes between the 73 and the 605 Freeways and make other improvements for general users at a cost of $1.47 billion. Caltrans has made it clear that they will not move forward with the toll lanes unless OCTA gives them the go. The OCTA Board will now hold a vote on the proposal at its December 9 meeting, during which the OCTA can hold more public hearings receive more input.
The Orange County Transportation Authority reported that the I-405 freeway corridor between Irvine and Long Beach is one of the most congested freeways in Orange County, carrying more than 300,000 vehicle trips in some sections each day. Based on the stats, most vehicles move between the bedroom suburbs, just to the southwest of Santa Ana, and the robust employment hubs near the Irvine Business Complex and South Coast Plaza. The freeway is generally stable at other times. Caltrans and OCTA have proposed to widen the freeway.
OCTA is looking at converting the existing pair of 2+ carpool lanes into dual 3+ high occupancy tolled express lanes each way. Federal law requires that carpool lanes operate at least 45 mph during 90% of the peak hour. The toll lane would require FasTrak toll transponders for all vehicles and possible mandatory tolls for 3+ carpoolers, much like the 91 Express Lanes. The proposal also includes adding one general purpose lane. The HOV-to-HOT conversion has caused a major public backlash at the local level with city governing bodies getting involved. Some opponents feel like they were victims of a bait-and-switch scheme with OC’s Measure M. The City of Costa Mesa has even threatened legal action. According to OCTA, the I-405 carpool lane fills to capacity and becomes congested, mainly during peak rush hours in the peak direction.
The OCTA Regional Planning and Highways Committee voted yesterday to recommend that the OCTA Board postpone a vote on the lanes until further public outreach is conducted. The Transit Coalition’s A Better Inland Empire weighs in on the debate.
Meanwhile, our blog provided some ideas on how to bring better bus transit infrastructure to the 91 Express Lanes through Corona. Even though the 91 Express Lane extension project is nearly identical to the I-405 project–convert the congested 2+ carpool lane into dual transponder-only 3+ HOT lane and add one general purpose lane–local opposition has been fairly quiet. The Coalition has long advocated that 3+ carpools travel toll free without the need for a FasTrak transponder. However, because infrastructure upgrades are long past due, many commuters are likely to welcome any sort of capacity expansion unlike the I-405 improvement project. The Coalition’s long term focus is improving the corridor’s transit infrastructure to support frequent rapid express bus lines, paying the project’s debt so that the 91 Express Lanes can financially support free non-transponder 3+ carpooling, and improving rail transit options through Metrolink MAX.
With the state legislative session winding down for the year, Orange County stands to win when it comes to transportation thanks to recently enacted bills. One of the new laws, AB 401, would allow Caltrans to use design-build for up to 10 highway projects across the state, with the principal intention to use such a procurement method for the proposed widening of the 405 Freeway through upper Orange County. The law will enable a speed up of construction and will reduce project costs. However, the American Council of Engineering Companies opposed the bill because the bill carried a provision that mandates Caltrans, not private companies, must oversee construction. Let’s not forget the pension reform bill passed last month, which allows OCTA buses to operate normally after a dispute between federal labor officials and the state threatened to withhold money to local transit agencies, including OCTA.
A bill to frame the investment of a significant portion of cap-and-trade revenues is beginning to make its way through the Assembly. AB 1051 would create the Sustainable Communities for All program with the goal of “providing transportation and housing choices that allow lower income Californians to drive less and reduce household costs.” The program would finance affordable housing in transit-oriented development, fund transit passes and add other ways to target high-propensity transit riders, energy efficiency improvements for homes affordable to low- and moderate-income Californians, and other vital programs and projects.
This funding is particularly important now that the state’s redevelopment funding has been eliminated and public transportation funding in California has been cut by more than $4 billion over the past decade. Cap-and-trade revenues are projected to reach nearly $4 billion per year by 2015, representing a critical opportunity to address the state’s mobility crisis while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving public health, and reviving our economy. The bill will be heard on April 17 in the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee and the Assembly Transportation Committee on April 29. To learn how you can support this bill contact TransForm’s Cap-and-Trade Campaign Manager, Ryan Wiggins.
Speaking of HOV 2+ lanes, Caltrans has also concluded that much of Orange County’s carpool lanes are congested during peak congestion times, which could signal the need to increase the carpool occupancy requirement to three during peak hours to get the lanes moving again. Also up for discussion are converting the HOV 2+ lanes into HOT 3+ lanes. If the latter, officials must not impose a mandatory transponder requirement for usage; otherwise the county risks seeing a decline in HOV usage.