Octa's transportation blog

Get Ready for Another Busy Year in Road Work in Orange County

This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register Online on Jan, 1, 2024.


Big projects near the El Toro Y are nearly done, while freeway expansion on the 55 is in its early phase. Bus ridership is up, rail traffic is back in south county, and the streetcar is about a year from carrying riders.

The boss of the Orange County Transportation Authority says the agency is on track to wrap up another large freeway project in 2024, following the Dec. 1 opening of new lanes on the 405 Freeway.

“We finished one big thing, but there are more things underway, more things to start,” Chief Executive Officer Darrell E. Johnson said while offering an annual update on transportation in Orange County in the next year.

“We’re going to have a busy year,” he said. “We have a number of construction projects that are underway, we have some that are going to start.

A year ago, the OCTA had $4 billion in projects underway. “Even adjusted for inflation,” Johnson added added, “that is more than we have ever had underway in Orange County.”

Along with funding from state and federal transportation programs, Orange County’s own half-cent sales tax (commonly called Measure M from when it was enacted in 1992 by voters and re-upped in 2006) fueled much of that work and will do so again in 2024.

In the fiscal year that ended in June, about $439 million was raised by Measure M, and current forecasts are it will net $14.8 billion before it is set to expire in 2041.

So we recently talked with Johnson about the OCTA’s important tasks in the coming year.

  1. What is the next big project wrapping up in 2024?

Johnson said improvements on the 5 Freeway – aimed at easing the crush at the El Toro Y – are about 95% complete and that construction crews should clear out of the area by late 2024.

The estimated $580 million project involved work on 33 ramps, with only one still being adjusted, he said. Overpass upgrades are complete, he added, though there is still some construction on smaller scale bridges along the 6.5 mile stretch of freeway.

“People that are driving on the I-5 in South County, it is at that point in the project where you are starting to see daily progress,” Johnson said. “You can see new lanes, improved ramps, new lighting and signage, as well as a variety of other improvements that are coming into view.”

  1. And what is the construction getting us?

When finished, the project will have added a lane in each direction between Avery Parkway and Alicia Parkway in Mission Viejo and extended the second carpool lane between from Alicia Parkway to El Toro Road.

“We really think this lengthening of the two carpool lanes and allowing more transition is going to be very helpful,” he said.

  1. I’m still seeing some work on the 405 Freeway?

That work, Johnson said, is all the tedious punch-list items. But he added that the effort to add lanes and reconstruct – or simply build new – 18 bridges, reconfigure on and off ramps, and do street-side work with new bike lanes and other improvements, is complete.

“We think of it now as putting the finishing touches on the project,” Johnson said, adding contractors are expected to close out nearly everything by spring. Landscaping will take about three years to take hold and flourish, and will be monitored during that time.

“We don’t see a project as big or as expansive as this in our future. It is the biggest thing we have ever done and probably is the biggest we will ever do in this space,” Johnson said.

Overall, the $2.16 billion project widened the freeway, adding one general lane in each direction, and two tolled lanes.

The newly introduced 405 Express Lanes – which run between the 73 Toll Road and the 605 Freeway – are seeing about 42,000 daily drivers during the work week and about 40,000 cars on the weekends, Johnson said. “It is performing as planned.”

  1. You can’t drive the 55 Freeway between the 405 and 5 freeways without noticing the construction to widen that key stretch. What’s the update there?

Work broke ground in July 2022 on the $475 million project and picked up pace in 2023. Johnson said the job is about 25% complete, and that OCTA expects “to see a lot of construction in 2024.”

Unlike the massive 405 Freeway project the county just lived through, the 55 widening will cause less disruption for drivers. That’s because there aren’t multiple bridges that need to be widened in tandem with the freeway, though Johnson said the MacArthur Boulevard bridge and the rail crossing will need work and there are lots of utilities and retaining walls to deal with. OCTA officials have said there will be no daytime lane closures during the work.

When complete – currently estimated to happen in 2026 –  both directions of the 55 will have a second carpool lane and a second lane for general use as well as improved access to ramps that are expected to ease congestion.

  1. When we talked a year ago about transportation in 2023, you said you expected the OC Streetcar system to be in testing by the end of the year. That didn’t happen. Why?

“We’ve had some significant issues around contaminated soil and cultural remains issues and then difficulties in moving utilities that were built in roadways decades ago that weren’t mapped,” Johnson said. “That has definitely caused delays.”

Work continues on Orange County’s first modern streetcar, which will carry riders between the Santa Ana train station and Garden Grove, with stops through the Civic Center and ending near Harbor Boulevard.

“We think 2024 is going to be an exciting year for progress on the project,” Johnson said.

But it likely won’t be the year the project is completed as was previously thought.

  1. Those issues also pushed the streetcar system’s price tag to $579 million. Where did that extra money come from?

State leaders tapped discretionary funds to cover the cost increase and keep the project on its rails, Johnson said.

That, in turn, has meant a new funding breakdown – with more than $280 million coming from Washington, D.C., about $175 from the state and nearly $124 million from local sources.

  1. What’s the newest timeframe for completing the project?

Johnson said the work is about 80% complete, with track as well as 14 platforms, canopies and electric poles all installed.  “Later this year we will begin testing the electrification system and we expect the vehicles, which are being constructed in Northern California, to arrive in Orange County the second half of the year.”

Johnson said the schedule now calls for system operations to be tested in late 2024 and riders to begin using the four-mile route in 2025.

With ground work – laying tracks, building platforms and such – largely done, rain delays seen in 2023 will likely not repeat in 2024 when forecasts call for another wetter season.

“The more you are out of the ground, the better for building,” Johnson said. “The big risk of rain on this project is behind us at this point.”

  1. The OCTA will be breaking ground in 2024 on two smaller projects?

One $35 million project will improve the interchange between Katella Avenue and the 605 Freeway and the bike lanes through that area, Johnson said. That work is expected to take about 18 months.

A second project set to begin next year will address the transition between the 91 Freeway and the 55 Freeway. In that area, the ramps taking drivers on and off Lakeview Avenue add to an often confusing jumble of cars changing lanes to get their preferred path. Johnson said the Lakeview overcrossing will be retooled and the westbound onramp will be realigned.

Also, a ramp from Lakeview to the south 55 will be added so those drivers aren’t trying to merge across lanes.  “We think that is going to be a really big benefit to untangling that decades old mess there,” Johnson said.

  1. Bus ridership is up. What does that mean for future service?

During the pandemic, bus ridership in Orange County dropped to about 30,000 riders a day. Recently, ridership has been about 120,000 people a day, a level that’s almost where we were pre-pandemic, and Johnson said Orange County is leading the state in ridership recovery.

He also said some of the new ridership is happening parts of the county where bus use wasn’t recently as common, in communities such as Yorba Linda, Newport Beach and Huntington Beach.

The agency is studying why that is, Johnson said, and what it might mean for future routes and services. “We think that is a real positive.”

The new demand, he said, is partly a reflection of the success of two newer programs offering free rides to college students and other local youth. In 2023, the first full year of the youth-ride-free program, the programs resulted in more than 2 million younger bus riders.

Already, Johnson added, bus service is slowly expanding in some areas based upon the new demand.

Also, OCTA is test driving more electric and hydrogen fuel cell buses to reach its zero-emissions goal. Its 500-bus fleet is now mostly compressed natural gas vehicles, which are low, but not zero, emission.

Ridership has also rebounded, he said, on train service through south OC where coastal erosion and landslides caused multiple emergencies and extended suspensions in service.

Rail repair work was completed in 2023 and the agency is now underway with studies of future solutions or improvements to protecting that rail line. That could even mean moving it inland, he said, though that is a long-term solution that would be decades away and cost billions, and not “in the single-digit billions.”