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405 express lanes set to open; last major freeway project in OC finishes

The 405 Freeway’s new express lanes are scheduled to open Friday, Dec. 1, allowing drivers to bypass traffic from the northern county line to Costa Mesa, and closing the book on major freeway projects in Orange County.

“From a mega project standpoint, I think this is it,” Orange County Transportation Authority CEO Darrell Johnson said. “This is the last large freeway project that we have planned.”

The $2.16 billion project to widen the 405 Freeway, adding two general lanes and two express lanes, one for each direction, left virtually no room for more expansion on the busy interstate that runs parallel to the coast.

The old carpool lanes are gone. For the 16-mile stretch of the project, two-lane express lanes take their place. People will have the option to pay a toll or carpool to use the express lanes, which require a FasTrak transponder.

Three-person carpools will always be free to use the lanes, but two-person carpools during rush hours will need to pay.

Paul Burner, who owns a detailing business and drives up and down the 405 every day with an employee, said he regularly used the old carpool lanes for his job, and is upset that he will now need to pay a toll during peak hours.

“Sometimes I have two, three different appointments in the day, so I have to get there quickly,” said Burner, who lives in Westminster. “I’m paying somebody to sit beside me to go from job to job, so time is money. So now, not only am I paying him for his time, to sit and go from job to job, now I have to pay for the toll as well.”

On average, drivers can expect to pay $3 to travel the entire way on express lanes.

The goal with express lanes, Johnson said, is to incentivize drivers to be more efficient, and will help reduce the growth of total miles traveled by motorists over time. At any hour of the day, drivers should expect to be going at the speed limit of 65 mph the entire length of the express lane, Johnson said.

Brian D. Taylor, a UCLA professor of urban planning and public policy, said express lanes operate much more efficiently than general lanes. The 91 express lanes, he said, carry about 45 percent of the total traffic on the freeway despite being two lanes only.

“Those two lanes are operating so much more efficiently, that more people are getting through as a result,” Taylor said. “If, for example, you took away the toll on those lanes, the same number of cars would go through (and) delay would go up for everyone.”

Pricing for the express lanes is adjusted based on expected traffic volume based on the time of day and isn’t variable if a lot of drivers decide to get on at once. A 24/7 traffic operations center will monitor the express lanes, and if an accident or other type of incident occurs on the lanes, the center will be able to close them to new traffic.



Tam Nguyen, an OCTA board member and owner of a beauty college in Garden Grove, said it’s a once-in-a-lifetime project and believes business owners will benefit from the increased freeway capacity and new express lane option.

“The 405 certainly affects the communities that I live and work in tremendously, in particular Little Saigon in the Vietnamese community,” Nguyen said. “I know it took a lot of involvement.”

Nguyen said he plans to use the lanes if needed when going to meetings in South County or heading north to Los Angeles. He acknowledged that construction did affect surrounding communities when their local on-ramps or bridges closed.

“I’ve gotten so much feedback on the new bridges, the better sidewalks, better bike lanes,” Nguyen said. “It’s just improved access throughout this whole corridor and region. I do know it took a lot of patience and partnership throughout the whole phase of construction to make it happen.”

The 405 express lanes are modeled after the 91 Freeway’s version. There are multiple entry and exit points on the express lanes, and the toll charged depends on the time of day and which stretch of the freeway was used. OCTA officials will have the ability to adjust toll rates on the express lanes.

Funding for the 405 Freeway project came from local sales tax revenue and state and federal funds. A federal loan funded the express lane portion via a low-interest $629 million loan that will be repaid by toll revenue.

The original price tag for the expansion was $1.9 billion. Johnson said they had challenges with unmarked utilities, disposing of contaminated soil and the handling Native American archaeological remains that pushed up the price.

Throughout the nearly six years of construction, workers rebuilt 18 bridges, reworked on- and off-ramps, and added bike lanes and sidewalks in places that didn’t have them before. More than 30,000 concrete trucks were needed for all the paving on the project, and more than 49 million pounds of rebar were used for the bridges and walls along the freeway.

At one point, construction halted when workers found Native American remains alongside an overpass being rebuilt. OCTA spokesperson Joel Zlotnik said the agency worked with the California Native American Heritage Commission when the remains were found to handle them in the appropriate manner.

“The Commission was responsible for determining a most likely descendant,” Zlotnik said. “Because of the sensitivity of the matter, the specific location where the remains were found was not released.”

California Highway Patrol has a 10-year, $15 million agreement to police the express lanes daily. The switchable FasTrak Flex transponders, where you set the number of passengers in the car from 1 to 3+ will light up corresponding lights on tolling equipment so officers can check if there are the same amount of people in the vehicle.

FasTrak transponders from other tollways will work, but residents who need to buy one can do so in person at the 405 Freeway customer service center at 1535 Scenic Ave. Ste. 125 in Costa Mesa off the Harbor Boulevard exit or online.

OCTA’s next major project is the completion of the OC Streetcar in August 2025. The 4-mile, 10-stop route goes through Santa Ana and Garden Grove. Johnson said as the county continues to urbanize, more carpool lanes are eventually likely to convert into express lanes.

“The freeway system is at its capacity,” Johnson said. “We don’t have any plans to do that tomorrow or the next day. But if we look three decades out, we see those types of things.”

Source: Orange County Register

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