Let's Debate: Should the I-405 in Orange County have Toll Lanes or not?

Graphic: OCTA/I-405 Project

By: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

The Transit Coalition has noted that many Inland Empire residents either commute or travel to destinations along the I-405 corridor between Irvine and West Los Angeles. Transportation officials have once again brought the idea of adding toll lanes to the freeway in west the Orange County segment. Let me tell you: There has been some intense debate on this proposal. HOT lanes--if built right--have proven to work. But whole city bodies and local politicians in west Orange County firmly object to HOT lanes on the I-405 and they have some good points. What are your thoughts?

Before we jump to any hasty conclusion of the toll lane proposal, we need to get some hard facts into the debate. I will be in contact with the agencies involved to get some specific facts and will share them to you as this debate moves forward, but several productive fact sheets have already been released by the agencies. So, here's a run down:

According to the project overview page by the Orange County Transportation Authority, the I-405 segment through west Orange County between Seal Beach and Costa Mesa carries more than 300,000 vehicle trips each day in some sections. OCTA predicts traffic volumes on the I-405 are expected to increase significantly as the population is expected to grow 11 percent by 2040.

Graphic: OCTA/I-405 Project
Transit mobility options are very limited. The only current high occupancy vehicle infrastructure that the corridor has a single 2+ carpool lane each way with HOV lane direct access ramps at select freeway interchanges. I have to say that this major transportation corridor is very car-centric and is starved for better transit options. Also, during rush hours when the general purpose lanes become slow, so does the carpool lane. However, the carpool lane does generally manage to move the cars slightly faster than the regular lanes during peak congestion.

As a solution, Caltrans, in cooperation with the OCTA, is proposing to widen the I-405 between the 73 Freeway and I-605. OCTA has indicated that the I-405 Improvement Project is funded by Measure M Orange County’s half-cent sales tax for transportation improvements. Here were the three build alternatives proposed:
  • Alternative 1:  Add one general purpose lane in each direction--The Measure M2 (M2) Project K as approved by the voters, adds one GP lane in each direction on the I-405 from Euclid Street to the Interstate 605 (I-605) interchange.
  • Alternative 2: Add two GP lanes in each direction--The M2 Project K with the addition of a second GP lane in the northbound direction from Brookhurst Street to the State Route 22 (SR-22) / 7th Street interchange, and the addition of a second GP lane in the southbound direction from the Seal Beach Boulevard on-ramp to Brookhurst Street.
  • Alternative 3: Add one GP lane and one high occupancy tolled express lane in each direction--Includes M2 Project K and adds a HOT/express lane in each direction on I-405 from State Route 73 (SR-73) to SR-22. The HOT/express lane would be combined with the existing high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, and these would be converted to HOT/express lanes providing two HOT/express lanes in each direction on I-405 between SR-73 and I-605. The westbound HOV connector from SR-22 to I-405 would also be operated as a HOT/express lane.
Local officials and many members on the OCTA Board of Directors did not like Alternative 3 simply because it involved tolling. According to the original project plans per this Caltrans page, the tolled express facility would have operated so that 2-person carpools would be tolled and 3-person carpools with a FasTrak transponder would either be free or receive a discount, a usage policy very similar to the 91 Express Lanes.

The opposition was so intense that the OCTA Board on December 9, 2013  reaffirmed their recommendation of Alternative 1 as the Preferred Alternative to Caltrans.

But since the I-405 is state-owned, Caltrans has more recently decided that Alternative 3 will be built while honoring OCTA's voter-approved M2 commitment. Here are some more facts according to Caltrans:

All of Orange County's M2 funding for the I-405 project will be directed to adding one general purpose lane in each direction. While OCTA proceeds with the general-purpose lane design-build contract, Caltrans will pursue other funding sources and will phase in the design and construction of a second lane which would be part of a two-lane high occupancy toll lane system. That would include converting the existing carpool lane to HOT. That of course has rallied the opposition with a valid point where if the free carpools are either tolled or have to get FasTrak transponders to use the HOT lanes, those not opting to pre-register will see no net gain in terms of additional lanes since there will be no free 2+ carpool lane. To be fair, the dual HOT lane system will reduce traffic in the general purpose lanes since the cars will be redistributed to the HOT lanes.

But here's an interesting statement the state agency had in the fact sheet regarding carpools in the toll lanes:

Caltrans will be pursuing other sources of funding (TIFIA, GARVEE, STIP, SHOPP loan, P3) for the additional lane. Alternative 3 meets the M2 Project description, to “add new lanes” and to “make best use of available freeway property.”

HOT lanes optimize the use of available roadway capacity, increase people throughput compared with general purpose lanes during peak periods, increases choice for travelers while also incentivizes carpooling and provides opportunities for increase transit. Caltrans will do everything possible to allow vehicles with 2 or more occupants to ride free or with deep discounts.

Graphic: OCTA/I-405 Project
"Caltrans will do everything possible to allow vehicles with 2 or more occupants to ride free or with deep discounts." Very interesting choice of words. To keep the I-405 solution fair for all, Caltrans really should strike out the "deep discounts" option and keep the high occupancy lane free for 2+ carpools 24/7 and not require the HOV's to get a FasTrak transponder. The Transit Coalition has maintained a general position that it is essential for carpools to have free access to HOT lanes without a requirement for transponders and we currently object to pre-registration policies that would result in a reduction of carpools instead of toll-paying single occupancy vehicles through the HOV facilities, especially projects that involve carpool lane conversions into HOT lanes. We did take a small exception to this position regarding the 91 Express Lane extension simply because HOV demands for the 91 are so high that 3 needed to be the carpool during heavy travel periods and the existing 2+ carpool lane was so slow that it pretty much looked like a general purpose lane in terms of speed. We're calling for state and federal officials to pay off the bond debt and amend state law so that it can financially support free 24/7 non-transponder carpooling and local officials should continue to work on getting efficient rapid express BRT launched for the corridor between Riverside and a major transit hub in Orange County like the Fullerton Transportation Center, the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center, or the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center.

Photo: San Diego MTS
Back to the 405.

Because the toll lane debate is so intense, I am calling for anybody involved--whether you support the I-405 toll lanes or firmly object--to check out the I-15 Express Lanes in San Diego, to explore the new rapid express BRT services there, and to take a test drive. If you object to paying tolls, fine; bring along somebody. The I-15 Express Lanes down south supports free non-transponder carpooling. Carpools and any other 2+ HOV can hop on for free and go, 24/7. Only solo drivers have to have a FasTrak and pay the posted toll. The HOT lanes have direct access ramps to/from transit stations, making a rapid express BRT alternative very feasible, fast and productive. The CHP enforces the carpool and toll payment process with heavy fines for carpool lane cheaters.

We believe a system like this for the I-405 between Irvine and West Los Angeles can fulfill the needs of both sides of the I-405 toll lane debate: The high occupancy lane capacity would be doubled, sustain fast speeds even during rush hours, and allow for better rapid express transit options; yet, all 2+ HOV's regardless if they have FasTrak account or not can continue to use the high occupancy vehicle infrastructure for free. One key difference is the carpool lane will be fast once more during rush hours. That is a solution that is fair for the corridor and the people who rely on it. And we suggest that transportation officials adopt it.

What do you think of all of this? We will take a closer took at this important proposal as it unfolds, gather public input, and will compile them here. We will be in contact with the agencies involved to get you the facts and what is being planned.