Businesses along the corridor of Interstate 5 through Tustin and Irvine beware. Meetings are being held for so-called public input for the proposed widening of the I-5 corridor through our town Tustin. The meetings are important to you for a variety of reasons.
Although the Orange County Transportation Agency is touting the project as a needed measure to relieve traffic on one of the most heavily traveled freeways in Southern California, the project is about more than just traffic.
To the south of us, cities and residents are struggling with the same issue with the widening of the I-405. Although the recent opening of the carpool flyovers between the 405, 605 and 22 freeways has helped in transitioning traffic in a safer manner, it hasn’t done much to change the overall flow which sees nearly 400,000 vehicles a day through some areas.
Three options were initially proposed for the widening of the 405. The first two involved adding lanes and carpool lanes to the existing highway. The third, touted by former councilman Jerry Amante who was the Tustin representative to OCTA at the time, was the creation of toll lanes (and the demise of carpool lanes). When the pubic outcry made it clear that toll lanes were not an option, the OCTA Board of Directors (mostly) back pedaled and settled on increasing the number of carpool and general purpose lanes, all of which would be free.
That wasn’t the end of it, however. In 2014 Caltrans, which has final say over virtually any freeway project, announced that toll roads were the only method that would improve traffic on the 405 through the county in a manner sufficient to satisfy the Feds. Members of the OCTA Board that favored toll lanes were overjoyed. Those that did not, including virtually every city along the proposed expansion, were not. OCTA, which had earlier promoted then disenfranchised themselves from toll lanes, quickly jumped back on the HOT train. At this point, OCTA fully supports the toll lane alternative which, by the way, would include the existing flyovers from the 605 and 22 freeways.
So, how does this affect the I-5 through Tustin?
Obviously, the same thing could, and probably would, happen to the I-5. For some reason, Caltrans believes that money losing, under utilized toll roads are the way to increase traffic through high impact areas. You can bet the writing is already on the sound wall for high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. It stands to reason that, according to their logic, anything less would not serve the government public needs.
The push for HOT lanes is obvious. No matter how little income they generate, HOT lanes income goes directly to the government. In order to alleviate the concerns of the various city councils, OCTA will, no doubt, offer to share a sizeable chunk of the change generated with the affected cities. In Tustin, one only has to wave the carrot in front of a gullible city council to get their attention.
The real rub for many is the fact that we already paid for this expansion. M2 funding is supposed to pay for public highway improvements. Measure M funding paid for some of the first improvements with the Feds (read, your personal income taxes) making up the rest. The same is true for the I-405 proposed expansion as well as the I-5 proposal. During the I-405 discussions, it was clear taxpayers do not want to pay twice for the same road improvements.
Caltrans is interested in one thing and it has nothing to do with how you and I perceive traffic issues. Federal money is at stake in all of these projects. Most highway improvement projects rely on matching grants from the Feds. If Federal guidelines are not met, in this case regarding traffic flow, the state would find it difficult to fund major projects.
There is no doubt, though, that Caltrans sees the dollar signs as well. Toll roads seem like an attractive way of generating cash. After all, in the eastern and some midwestern states, toll roads are more common than free highways. But, easterners have grown up on toll roads. Californians have not been so “lucky”. In fact, toll roads were virtually non-existent until the 1990’s when State Route 91 implemented a public/private toll road system to charge for the privilege of travelling a 10 mile stretch of highway between Orange and Riverside Counties. That “partnership” has since devolved into a government function that has never made enough money to pay for the lanes it took over.
And that is the real issue that is coming before voters in Orange County. Caltrans, apparently with vested authority, will tell Orange County what to do with local taxpayer money by forming toll lanes on the I-405 – and the I-5 through Tustin. Public concerns be damned, you will pay twice to build a road most of you will never be able to use.
There is a possibility Caltrans could be thwarted in their efforts. It begins with us, however. By turning out in force at the upcoming meetings, residents of Orange County, particularly Tustin and Irvine, can tell the authorities that toll roads is not an alternative on a public highway. Yes, we need relief from the already overcrowded highway lanes traversing our city. But, those lanes should be paid for completely with Measure M funding that had already been approved for the projects, not with the “enhancement” of toll roads which will never pay for themselves but will certainly allow the elite of the county to travel unencumbered.
You can bet Al Murray, current Tustin representative to OCTA will be there. He needs to hear from Tustin and other Orange County residents how toll roads are not the answer. He needs to hear how he should be seeking the assistance of our state legislators to prevent or, at least provide oversight of, any proposed toll road project. And Caltrans, which is sponsoring the meetings, needs to be told to keep their hands off our local tax money.
If this is a numbers game and numbers are the driving force, it should be obvious to everyone involved that toll roads are grossly underutilized, making zero real impact on traffic, existing or future. One only has to travel the 91 freeway during rush hour to see the negligent impact money-losing toll roads have on the morning commute. Toll roads benefit only one segment of population, the rich and famous who can afford it.
And, if anyone wants to look at the “success” of the 73/241/261 “private” toll road debacle, remember that the Transportation Corridor Agencies have refinanced bond measures multiple times to extend the payment schedule due to underutilization of those highways. So, why would it be different with the I-405 or I-5? If tolls are implemented, they are here to stay.
If there is a ray of hope. it is likely to be in the form of legislation, like then assemblyman Allen Mansoor’s in 2014 to block toll roads, at least on the I-405 and I-5. In order for that to happen, Orange County residents need to make it clear to their lawmakers (both local and at the state level) that toll roads are an unacceptable solution to the traffic problem. Again, that starts with attending the meetings and voicing a collective opinion.
There are two scheduled meetings for the I-5 project. The first was held January 26th in Irvine . The second meeting, on January 28th at 5pm is a bit closer at Tustin High School in the cafeteria, 1171 El Camino Real, Tustin. Judging from the locations, it seems OCTA, which is putting on the “informational” meetings, does not expect a huge crowd. They might be surprised, depending on the publicity these meetings receive.
Yes, this is the early stages of this project. Without early involvement by concerned citizens, however, OCTA may roll over again on the toll road issue. And, this time, they may have more ammunition in the form of the I-405 project.