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Legal fight over the 405 expansion in Orange County moves to San Diego

This is a picture of the study area map for the 16-mile expansion of the I-405 freeway in Orange County that will add one toll lane and one general purpose or free lane.
Courtesy of the Orange County Transportation Authority
This is a picture of the study area map for the 16-mile expansion of the I-405 freeway in Orange County that will add one toll lane and one general purpose or free lane.

The legal fight over widening a stretch of the 405 Freeway in Orange County is headed south to San Diego.

Attorneys for the city of Long Beach and the California Department of Transportation have agreed to litigate the case in a neutral county, said Caltrans spokesman David Richardson.

Long Beach sued the state last summer over plans to add one toll lane and one free lane to the 405 between State Route 73 in Costa Mesa and the 605 Freeway near the Los Angeles County line.  The proposal also calls for converting the existing carpool lane into a toll lane.

Seal Beach also filed a lawsuit against the project.

Both cities say they are not against the $1.7 billion freeway expansion itself; instead, they want Caltrans and the Orange County Transportation Authority to pay for more traffic congestion solutions on city surface streets.

Long Beach Assistant City Attorney Michael Mais said the 405 expansion would bring more vehicles to main roadways as drivers will try to avoid the predicted bottleneck where the additional freeway lanes narrow.

About 370,000 cars travel everyday on the 16-mile stretch of the 405, according to the O.C. Transportation Authority. The widening project is expected to increase traffic flow on the freeway by 23 percent between SR-22 East and I-605 by 2040.

Mais said the city is comfortable fighting the case in San Diego.

“We feel the facts won’t change,” he said. “They will indicate that the project, as it’s been approved, doesn’t do enough for our arterial streets that will be forced to take on the overflow of traffic.”

While Caltrans waits to see if a judge will consolidate both lawsuits and move the Seal Beach case to San Diego, the city attorney for Seal Beach would rather see the case stay local.

“We properly filed the case in Orange County and we are prepared to litigate in Orange County,” said Seal Beach City Attorney Craig Steele.

Drive times on the 405 between SR-73 and the 605 are projected to take more than an hour by the year 2040 but, according to the OCTA, with the additional free lane, that commute could be cut in half; and up to 13 minutes if a driver chooses to pay for the toll lanes.

“Anyone who uses the 405 I think would tell you it needs some improvements,” said OCTA spokesman Joel Zlotnik.

The California Department of Transportation will provide $82 million to subsidize the $400 million construction price tag for the toll lanes.

OCTA officials fought off adding toll lanes to the 405 for a while until they couldn’t anymore without  risking control of the potential toll revenues and the project.  

The move mirrors decisions by transportation officials in Los Angeles a few years ago, when they caved in to state officials and added toll lanes to the 110 Harbor Freeway and then the 10 El Monte freeway the following year.

An OCTA study that could determine how much drivers will pay to use the new 405 toll lanes is due this summer.

Construction is expected to start in 2018.