It looks like drivers on the I-405 in Orange County may get faster commutes.
The Orange County Transportation Authority voted to add one general purpose lane in each direction, and one express toll lane in each direction between Costa Mesa and the Los Angeles County line.
The project should significantly reduce travel times. In 2040, projected travel times are expected to be 13 minutes in the new toll lanes and 29 minutes in the general purpose lanes, which will be a dramatic improvement over previous forecasts. Without this project, the same trips were expected to take over two hours in 2040.
Orange County’s SR 91’s express toll lanes pioneered congestion-based pricing back in 1994 and these new I-405 toll lanes, which will be adding capacity to the freeway, should offer drivers a congestion-free option. The express lanes are a good solution to Orange County’s long-term congestion challenges in part because toll lanes are based on the users-pay, users-benefit principle. The people who pay the tolls to drive in the congestion-free toll lanes will receive most of the benefits. If you don’t use them, you don’t have to pay for them.
As the 91 Express Lanes have shown, the toll lanes should appeal to all income groups. The most common vehicles using the 91 Express Lanes are Honda Civics and Toyota Corollas, not luxury vehicles. Some commuters will be able to use the toll lanes regularly. Others may only use the lanes when they’re running late or need to get to a daycare center, soccer game or business meeting on time. But the toll lanes are valuable to everyone because the option of a fast, congestion-free lane is there when you need it.
The toll lanes should also be used to improve Orange County’s transit network. Express bus and bus rapid transit vehicles can take advantage of the free-flowing lanes to reduce travel times and give riders more reliability. Buses using the toll lanes will be able to get from point A to point B faster than the cars using the general purpose lanes. And riding the bus at rush hour is cheaper than paying the tolls as a solo driver. Those improvements in travel times and reliability can be used to increase the quality and viability of the transit system, which should ultimately result in more people riding buses.
It’s also good news that the toll revenue generated by the lanes can only be spent on the I-405 corridor, meaning the money will be used to maintain the lanes the drivers are paying for.
The I-405 improvement project will be the first to use State Assembly Bill 401, which authorized counties and regional transportation agencies to pursue their own design-build projects and contracts. Design-build projects have been used in other areas to reduce costs and speed up the construction of major roadway projects.
Hopefully, the 405 improvement project is the first step in constructing a connected network of toll lanes throughout the region. Virtually every Orange County expressway experiences bad traffic jams during at least part of the day. Reason Foundation’s transportation plan for Southern California recommended adding variably-priced toll lanes throughout Orange County, including lanes on I-5, I-605, SR 22, SR 55 and SR 57.
While there are no magical solutions to Southern California’s terrible traffic congestion, OCTA’s embrace of variably-priced toll lanes on the 405 will provide workers, emergency vehicles, buses, delivery drivers and truckers with faster travel options.
If this is the first step by OCTA, and if other regional transportation agencies follow suit, the 405 improvement project can serve as a building block that helps put the region on a path toward reducing the traffic jams that waste far too much of our time and have long been a drag on the economy.
Baruch Feigenbaum is assistant director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation.