Commentary : New Challenge in Transportation

William E. Farris is chairman of the Orange County Transit District board of directors. He has been a board member since 1975

In early January, I was honored by my colleagues on the Orange County Transit District board of directors by being chosen as the district's chairman. But my satisfaction with the challenges my new position presents me is tempered by the knowledge that the things that stand in the way of genuine progress toward greater mobility for Orange County are not necessarily physical or fiscal or organizational, but human.

In short, there are too many people in power who don't believe we've got a traffic problem here. To them I say, regretfully, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

We at OCTD want to move forward with ambitious and insightful plans that will not only accomplish the basic goal of moving people from place to place efficiently, quickly and inexpensively, but will contribute to the economic well-being of Orange County as well.

But, unfortunately, as often happens when change is introduced--however vital it may be--the "naysayers" begin to appear.

OCTD has developed a broad range of strategies to help decrease the traffic that is choking Orange County tighter every day, traffic that absolutely will increase dramatically in a very short time. These strategies, such as car-pooling, van-pooling, flexitime and the development of transportation management associations, are proven schemes. They work, and work beautifully.

But cadres of elected officials, both in Orange County and in Sacramento, as well as leaders of the county's business community, don't believe it. They're gripped by an inertia that is, frankly, difficult to understand.

Provide flexible work hours for employees in order to allow them to commute to work at off-peak hours? A nice idea, say many leaders of large businesses, but not for us.

Car-pooling and van-pooling, particularly on commuter lanes that are already set up on the Costa Mesa Freeway? Pretty good idea, say the politicians, but our constituents don't seem to be crazy about it. Better put the lanes somewhere else. Or, better still, come up with another idea.

But have the naysayers provided alternative ideas? They haven't. Have they gone far enough in acknowledging the severity of the transportation crush in Orange County, particularly what it may become in the near future? No.

They view transportation alternatives the way many residents view the prospect of new jails: great idea, but not in my backyard.

We're a people who are in love with our cars, they say. No one's willing to ride in a car pool. How, then, do they explain the fact that the car-pool lanes on the Costa Mesa Freeway, only a year old, are already operating at nearly their projected capacity?

How do they explain the fact that OCTD's ride-sharing department, Commuter Network, reported a 108% increase over last year in the number of car poolers placed? That's 4,145 people, compared to 1,991 people last year.

In addition, the number of people joining van pools continues to rise. So do the number of business firms that sponsor them. In recent weeks, Flo-Jet, Cla-Val and Cherry Textron began offering van-pool transportation to employees, and Rockwell International and Ford Aerospace enlarged their van-pool operations.

These ride sharers are changing and adapting to the times, and finding it a welcome convenience.

But those in positions of power with the ability to effect sweeping change, with the means to spearhead truly effective transportation strategies for the future of Orange County, can't see that. The greatest comfort to them is the status quo, but Orange County has never, never in all of its existence, relied on the status quo for comfort.

We are an ever-changing, always dynamic society, one of the model regions of America. We remain at the forefront of high technology, business, leisure, innovation and overall standard of living. We can be justifiably proud of this.

But it is all worth nothing if we become paralyzed by immobility tomorrow as a result of nearsighted thinking today. Great societies are made by visionaries, not pessimists who are more interested in what was than in what could be--indeed, must be.

Our challenge today on the OCTD board of directors is not only to help shape the future of transportation in Orange County but also to convince those with the reins of power--legislative and business people together--that we need positive, constructive leadership.

We have already proven ourselves. And we will take the future with us.

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