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By Lillian Boyd

Orange County Transportation Authority’s Regional Planning and Highway Committee Meeting met on Monday, Oct. 6, for a regularly scheduled meeting. The agenda included an update on efforts to relieve South County traffic.

In light of the Transportation Corridor Agencies being in the process of studying toll road expansion options in South Orange County, OCTA staff provided a presentation with background information on efforts from both OCTA and TCA to address traffic in South County.

The presentation highlighted the South County Traffic Relief Effort Project Study Report-Project Development Support (PSR-PDS), which is being prepared and developed by the TCA in cooperation with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). The agencies will be moving forward in initiating the environmental phase to conduct more detailed studies.

“The efforts leading up to the environmental phase have raised concerns with OCTA,” OCTA CEO Darrell Johnson said in the report. “These concerns generally focus on a lack of meaningful stakeholder coordination, questionable technical analyses, and conflicts with Measure M2 and other improvements planned by OCTA.”

PSR-PDS explored a set of 24 total ideas. Monday’s presentation screened them down to eight—ideas 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 17, 18, 21. Those narrowed-down proposals include connecting Ortega Highway to Avery and SR-73; Interstate 5 widening with high-occupancy tolls (HOT) or general purpose lanes south of Interstate 405; Extending Los Patrones to Avenida La Pata with I-5 HOT lanes south of SR-73; Extending SR-241 to SR-73; or extending SR-241 to I-5 via La Pata Crossing, or via Shorecliffs.

The presentation addressed areas where OCTA staff felt the ideas conflicted with OCTA projects. In an interview with San Clemente Times, Johnson said that it’s important voters get what they voted on.

“If you vote yes (on Measure M2), you expect those tax-funded projects to be built,” Johnson said. “It’s extremely concerning to us, and we take it very seriously that we deliver on our promises.”

In February 2018, OCTA initiated a project to build six new miles of carpool lanes between San Juan Creek Road and Avenida Pico on I-5. Ideas 11 and 12 would convert Measure M-funded carpool lanes—Avenida Pico to San Juan Creek Road—to HOT lanes, Johnson said.

“We find that, at best, confusing,” Johnson said. “And, at worst, offensive—from a good government standpoint.”

Johnson added that OCTA prides itself on finding solutions and that tolling is not always the solution.

In a written statement provided by the TCA, the agency said the OCTA staff report issued for Monday’s meeting contained factual errors.

“On pages 1 and 2 of the staff report, it states that TCA is seeking options to extend its toll road network,” the statement said. “Many of the alternatives proposed also include features that would extend or provide bikeways, complete streets and/or sidewalks, ramps that are ADA compliant and bikeway connections.”

TCA states the agency is keenly aware of the recently completed and ongoing Measure M projects along I-5 in South Orange County and respects OCTA’s Measure M commitments.

“Given the planning year horizon of 2050 and the regional nature of the project, we believe it is important to consider alternatives on the I-5 as well as alternatives which provide an extension of the SR-241.”

As far as a timeframe for public comment on PSR-PDS, Caltrans, as the lead agency, will determine dates, as required by the California Environmental Quality ACT (CEQA).

In response to Johnson’s assertion that there has been a lack of “meaningful dialogue” between stakeholders,” the TCA statement said it is aware of OCTA’s concerns with the study in general, but TCA has had, and will continue to have, opportunities for robust input from the public and stakeholders, including OCTA.

“TCA’s public outreach and stakeholder involvement started in 2015—well before the state-mandated CEQA outreach was scheduled to start. TCA undertook an unprecedented outreach effort throughout Orange County, especially focusing on the southern part of the County.”

The concerns outlined in the report will be brought to the OCTA Board of Directors on Oct. 28. Johnson said that as public scoping begins for the TCA, OCTA will make its comments formally known during a public-comment period.

“Speaking on behalf of myself, as an individual, and as a stakeholder,” Johnson said, “engagement is really important. It’s important that we are open and honest about these projects for the opportunity of meaningful engagement.”

TCA’s statement asserted that both TCA and OCTA are committed to preserving Measure M projects and that many of those projects that OCTA is preparing to construct will likely have not been in operation for at least a decade or more before TCA begins to construct any project.

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