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Report Gauges Impact of Improving Santa Ana Freeway : Good News: Easing Traffic, More Jobs; Bad News: Loss of Homes

Times Staff Writer

A plan to relieve traffic congestion on the Santa Ana Freeway is likely to displace 346 homes and introduce 30-foot-high guideways for express buses but will mean thousands of new jobs and relief for motorists, according to an environmental review of the proposal.

The report, presented Thursday to the Orange County Transportation Commission (OCTC), concludes that most of the worst environmental effects can be offset by building new sound walls, heavy landscaping, and helping residents displaced by the freeway-widening project to find and purchase new homes.

“Of course, an investment program of this magnitude has impacts, both positive and negative, and they are significant impacts. But worthy of note is that, given the magnitude of the project, comparatively speaking, the impacts are relatively less than what would be expected,” said Sharon Greene, an OCTC staff member.

The massive freeway-improvement program was approved by the commission last year in response to traffic congestion that has reached “operational breakdown” in many parts of central Orange County during morning and evening rush hour, and which has begun to extend into the rest of the day as well.

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The Santa Ana corridor--extending three to six miles on either side of the Santa Ana Freeway--already houses 56% of Orange County’s population and 68% of its employment base. Jobs alone are expected to increase by 47% by the end of the century.

The $1.7-billion improvement program envisioned by the commission--contemplated as a gradual system of improvements not yet fully funded--includes plans to:

- Widen the freeway by two lanes in each direction between I-405 and I-605, with accompanying auxiliary lanes.

- Provide two carpool and express bus lanes along the same route. The so-called “High Occupancy Vehicle” lanes would run along an elevated guideway between the Costa Mesa and Orange freeways that would typically reach up to 30 feet above the ground, though it could be more than 70 feet in height near central Santa Ana and the interchange between the Santa Ana and Costa Mesa freeways.

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- Build 14 miles of sound walls, primarily in Buena Park, Anaheim, Santa Ana and Tustin.

- Provide at least two trains a day for commuter service, in addition to Amtrak’s existing seven-train-per-day service between Los Angeles and San Diego.

The most significant environmental impact identified in the study is the displacement of 346 homes nearest the freeway, primarily in Anaheim, Santa Ana and Tustin. Of the 1,080 residents who would be affected, 37% of them represent ethnic minorities and 65% of them are from low-income families, according to the study.

A total of 49% of the families own their own homes, while the others are renters and mobile home park residents. The plan calls for buying the homes at fair market value and providing relocation assistance for those displaced.

In addition to the homes, a total of 226 businesses would be displaced, for which compensation would also have to be provided, the report says.

On the plus side, the report noted that the freeway widening would result in about 4,000 new permanent jobs (in addition to nearly 12,000 “person-years” of construction-related jobs) and increase total regional income by $232 million to $465 million a year, simply through operations and maintenance expenditures.

The additional freeway capacity would provide space for 22,000 automobile trips during rush hour, increasing average travel speeds by 32% and reducing air-pollutant emissions by more than 11%, the report concluded.

The OCTC plans to schedule two public meetings sometime next month to present the findings of the environmental review, though no firm dates are set.

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