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Meeting County Traffic Needs

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Signs of Orange County’s aging will be a bit more visible in 1985 as Disneyland celebrates its 30th birthday and the Cal State Fullerton campus its 25th. But nowhere is the sign of aging, and growth, more visible than on the county’s freeways.

Each year the freeway network becomes more congested and in need of repair. To the frustration of public officials and motorists, however, money to maintain the freeways and build needed new ones is in woefully short supply.

The situation was much the same at the beginning of 1984, but in 1985 there is one significant difference. Although residents have clearly shown their interest in seeing improvements in the county’s transportation system by widening freeways and improving public transportation, they even more clearly have shown that they don’t want to pay for those changes with more taxes, or change their travel habits. That was most evident in the overwhelming defeat last June of Proposition A, the proposed 1-cent sales tax increase for transportation, and again in the annual county survey released by UC Irvine researchers last month.

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Thus traffic congestion, which is beginning to discourage some business firms from locating here and causing others to move, remains one of the biggest problems and challenges for the Board of Supervisors and the county’s cities.

But all is not bleak. There has been some recent progress. After several years of study the Orange County Transportation Commission last month adopted an ambitious $1.4-billion plan to expand and improve the superannuated Santa Ana Freeway, the county’s oldest and most heavily used freeway, built 30 years ago to last 25 years.

We support the approach of giving top priority in transportation planning to widening and improving the existing freeways. Considering the critical shortage of funds for freeways and mass transit, we also strongly support the innovative approaches that county transportation officials are now exploring to ease congestion and meet the growing traffic needs.

One involves seeking state approval to use interest from the county’s $85-million mass transit fund for freeway and road improvement projects. It’s a fair and reasonable approach the state should waste no time in approving.

The interest would amount to about $8.5 million a year, which would make the money the county’s largest single source of income for local transportation. The plan makes sense because it can help the county meet some of its immediate transportation needs without robbing the future of the money that must also be there to give the county system balance with mass transit lines.

In the meantime, transportation officials are looking to private industry to do the job public agencies cannot now afford to do. A private consulting firm has been commissioned to conduct a study to determine what interest, if any, there might be in the private sector for building and owning a mass transit line that would operate under contract to the county’s transit district.

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Another innovative, and controversial, approach that involves raising funds from the private sector is the use of developer fees to help build transportation corridors, such as the proposed San Joaquin Hills freeway that would run 14 miles from Corona del Mar to the San Diego Freeway near Avery Parkway.

The Board of Supervisors has approved the use of fees levied against new homes and commercial buildings to provide a bulk of the money needed to construct the corridor. The board now needs the 11 cities that would benefit from the corridor’s construction to join in the approach and work out a fee program.

We would rather see more federal and state funds going into the corridor’s construction, but the reality is that for at least the remainder of this century the outlook is grim for enough money for freeways without local participation. Given the options, the developer fee is in keeping with the growing public-private financing approach.

Adding the fee to new construction obviously would raise the cost of housing (and commercial rents) because a developer will surely pass on to the consumer as much of the fee as the market will bear. But affordable housing can and must be exempt from the fee. We doubt, however, that adding about $1,100 to the total cost of expensive new homes will change the price enough to discourage buyers as much as the lack of an adequate transportation system might. Also, the fees could help attract more matching state construction dollars.

Financing is only one of the controversial issues involved in the proposed San Joaquin Hills freeway. Some people don’t want to see any new freeways built in the county. We don’t agree with them. The county cannot continue to build and not provide the infrastructures that growth requires. But we do agree with opponents who argue that the proposed 12 lanes at its widest point is environmentally unacceptable. A narrower, scenic route that includes high-occupancy vehicle lanes and encourages more use of mass transit would be a better-balanced approach.

Building and maintaining a transportation system in a sprawling, still-growing metropolitan area of more than 2 million residents involves expense, innovation and sometimes a change in travel habits. It comes down to paying the price now, or later with the loss of mobility, economic health and the quality of community life.

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