Orange County: Anger brewing with proposed I-405 toll lanes

The Orange County Transportation Authority has 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, the majority of traffic moves between the bedroom suburbs just to the southwest of Santa Ana to the robust employment hubs in the Irvine Business Complex and South Coast Plaza areas. The freeway is generally stable at other times. Caltrans and OCTA have proposed to widen the freeway.

OCTA is looking at converting the existing 2+ carpool lane into dual 3+ high occupancy tolled express lanes each way in part because 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 major public backlash at the local level with city governing bodies getting involved. Residents felt like they were victims of a bait-and-switch scheme with 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.

Toll Lanes need Free non-transponder Carpooling

The Transit Coalition generally supports multi-modal express lanes and congestion pricing, but believes that it is essential for carpools to have free access to HOT lanes without a requirement for transponders and objects to pre-registration policies that would result in a reduction of carpools instead of single occupancy vehicles, especially projects that involve carpool lane conversions into HOT lanes. The reasons are overwhelming.

Last year, Los Angeles Metro converted the carpool lanes along the I-110 and I-10 freeways into high occupancy toll lanes. Carpools and all other high occupancy vehicles travel toll free, but with a catch. Except for motorcycles and preregistered buses, they must also have a switchable FasTrak transponder. That ill-advised mandate has caused many high occupancy vehicles to be displaced from the express lanes. In fairness, more drivers are utilizing the toll lanes and transit ridership has soared, but the overall number of carpools using the high occupancy lane has gone down. The leftover space is then sold to non HOV's. The end result is more toll-paying non HOV's in the high occupancy lane than HOV's.

Local I-405 residents and their elected representatives don't want that happening along their freeway. And who can blame them? Because the I-110 and I-10 toll lanes are mired in a toll transponder mandate for free carpools with the 91 Express Lanes having similar requirements, any kind of high occupancy toll lane proposal will likely be opposed. That is unfortunate because if the I-405 were to get a toll lane system like the I-15 Express Lanes facility from San Diego County complete with transit infrastructure and free non-transponder 2+ carpooling, the majority of locals would likely be satisfied with the completed facilities. Because trivial regulations such as mandatory tolls and transponders on carpoolers have caused such a negative public view of toll lanes in general, many people won't even support a replica of the award winning I-15 Express Lanes for the I-405.

Getting the I-405 Freeway and its high occupancy lanes moving

Moving forward, OCTA should not be stonewalling the values of its local residents. That is a disgrace to democracy. There must be some compromise in getting I-405 carpool lanes and the regular lanes moving in lieu of converting them into toll lanes. On top of the toll lane proposal, one OCTA I-405 alternative was to add one regular lane, the other was two general purpose lanes. Perhaps a fair compromise would be to add one general purpose and one 2+ carpool lane to form a dual carpool lane system each way from the I-605 to SR-73. Meanwhile, to get the existing single carpool lane moving once more, OCTA officials should identify any bottlenecks and consider improving mass transit options. If engineers conclude its occupancy requirement for carpool should be raised to 3 during peak hour congestion, launch a 3-month long carpool marketing campaign to the convert the peak hour 2-person carpools into 3+ and implement all day express bus services between downtown Long Beach, Irvine, and the Laguna Hills Transportation Center. Work with the private sector to improve existing Park & Ride options and connections to transit centers. That would create a long-lasting high occupancy lane corridor that would begin to mimic the El Monte Busway while minimizing negative impacts caused by the displacement of 2-person carpools.

Imposing mandatory tolls or transponders on carpools should be no substitute.