MOORLACH UPDATE — Toll Lane Reverberations — August 20, 2014

The announcement of the proposed unilateral taking by Caltrans of lanes to be built with the hard earned tax dollars of the residents of Orange County is having reverberations around the state. And it should. The adaptation of Aesop’s classic fable, “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” in the Pixar movie, “A Bug’s Life,” depicts what’s going on here. A hard toiling colony of ants (Orange County residents) is now being commanded to open up its storehouse by greedy grasshoppers (Sacramento) who did not prepare themselves for the winter months (see MOORLACH UPDATE — Toll Lane Opponents — July 29, 2014 and MOORLACH UPDATE — I-405 Hold Up — July 26, 2014). Outside observers get it. And the editorial board of the Ventura County Star, whose readership resides in a non-self-help county (a county that has not successfully voted for a sales tax increase like Measure M), has taken notice in their piece below.

Toll lanes raise questions about a tax measure

Ten years ago, Ventura County voters turned down a proposed half-cent sales tax to fund transportation improvements.

The 2004 electorate nixed the idea by almost 3 to 2 (59 percent to 41 percent), but the idea hasn’t completely gone away.

Some officials continue to say such a tax would aid this area by generating local matching funds that could help us obtain state and federal dollars for freeway widening and other highway and bridge projects.

Unlike Ventura County, 19 other counties in the state, including several in Southern California, levy a local sales tax earmarked for transportation projects. One is Orange County, where a controversy is unfolding that might affect how Ventura County voters perceive any new proposal for a sales tax increase for transportation.

In late July, the state Department of Transportation announced it wants to install 14 miles of toll lanes on heavily congested Interstate 405 between Seal Beach and Costa Mesa. However, local officials in Orange County are denouncing Caltrans’ idea because it would take away carpool lanes funded by Orange County’s half-cent transportation sales tax.

According to The Associated Press, officials who have come out against the Caltrans proposal include local mayors, state legislators and members of the county Board of Supervisors. As reported by the Costa Mesa Daily Pilot, Los Alamitos Mayor Gerri Graham-Mejia compared Caltrans to a schoolyard bully taking lunch money from Orange County residents who approved the tax.

When voters passed the tax measure in 2006, nothing in it mentioned funding for toll roads, said Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach , who complained that Caltrans is trying to take unfair advantage of the tax. “The taxpayers of Orange County have been paying an additional sales tax to improve traffic, but Sacramento is usurping that,” Supervisor Moorlach said, as reported by the Los Angeles Times.

Caltrans came up with the proposal for toll lanes to cut travel time for drivers on that stretch of Interstate 405. Government figures indicate it’s one of the most heavily used freeways in the nation, and travel times there are predicted to grow even longer unless some action is taken.

Ventura County has no toll lanes and none are proposed here, but other Southern California counties have implemented them or are in the process of adding them or weighing whether to add them.

Much of the outcry against the Caltrans proposal in Orange County springs from public hostility toward the cost for drivers to use toll lanes, but it’s clear that officials are unhappy with Caltrans on the tax angle, too. Those are points for residents and leaders in that county to address. Though we’re not taking a position on them, we will watch with interest because the debate — and any Caltrans policy related to it — could have effects here in Ventura County if a transportation tax is discussed again.

We anticipate critics will ask whether adequate controls and guarantees will be in place regarding use of the tax proceeds and whether promises made to local voters may be ignored or terminated by the state. Those are matters of public interest that deserve wide discussion if such a measure is put on the ballot.

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