County Plans Appeal in Delay of Road Funds

Times Staff Writer

Complaining that the county's freeway improvement plans are being unfairly postponed, Orange County Transportation Commission members voted Monday to appeal the state's proposed delay of the agency's top priority--the widening of the Santa Ana Freeway.

The Santa Ana Freeway work involves seven of 22 county road improvement projects that have faced delays ever since state officials determined there will be $650 million less in federal financing for state freeway needs over the next five years.

Called Unfair Burden

Widening of the Santa Ana Freeway would increase the number of lanes from six to 12, including two high-occupancy lanes for buses and car pools.

Commissioner Ralph B. Clark, a county supervisor, complained that the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), acting on the shortfall, wants the county to delay 54% of its planned expenditures when only 33% of all road project money statewide would be affected.

The 22 projects delayed in Orange County account for $244 million, a little more than one-third of the federal shortfall, according to OCTC figures.

"We're willing to shoulder some of the burden, but we just don't want to shoulder everybody else's burdens," said OCTC Executive Director Stanley T. Oftelie.

Staying Prepared

In its appeal, the OCTC will ask the California Transportation Commission to keep its engineers working on the design for widening the Santa Ana Freeway from the San Diego Freeway interchange to the Los Angeles County border. Meanwhile, the county agency will continue to seek earlier funding.

"On paper, we may have to delay the projects, but we want to keep the design work going so that if the funding problem is solved, we're ready to go on the construction," said Ron Cole, OCTC director of planning and programming.

The state body will hear appeals and decide at its Sept. 26 meeting which projects will be delayed.

Supervisor Bruce Nestande, who chairs the state commission, also said he would oppose any discriminatory treatment of Orange County. But he conceded that the county may still bear the brunt of the cutbacks.

Nestande explained that the state commission doles out federal money from a variety of funds for specific projects--such as road widening or new roads--and that money from one fund cannot be used to finance a different kind of project.

Nestande's Explanation

So the more Orange County needs road-widening money, he said, the less it is likely to get in terms of an overall percentage.

"I can't say what we'll do (with the county's appeal), but the potential for relief is there," Nestande said. He also said that California congressmen are working on a bill for additional transportation funding that would recoup most of the shortfall within 18 months.

Nestande added that the Orange County projects are being delayed one or two years, not being canceled, and that the proposed delays represent a "worst case scenario."

Not affected by the delays, however, is what OCTC officials believe to be the key aspect of the Santa Ana Freeway project--the widening and improving of the interchange of the Santa Ana and Costa Mesa freeways, Oftelie said.

However, local transportation officials are still frustrated with the proposed delays.

"Imagine yourself as a daily commuter on I-5 putting up with that traffic day after day for years and then the decision is made to widen it," Cole said. "You wait five years for construction to begin, and then you have to wait another year or two because of this funding problem."

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