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County’s New Caltrans District Offers No Quick Fixes for Traffic Problems

Times Urban Affairs Writer

The new Caltrans district office and staff established for Orange County by Gov. George Deukmejian last month will help prevent further delays in highway projects here, state and county transportation officials say, but frustrated motorists are unlikely to notice any difference for more than a year.

Instead, the first people to benefit will be transportation planners and private consulting firms who will be called upon more frequently to design road improvements, thus easing the workload for Caltrans’ own engineers. They will have improved access to Caltrans’ officials and presumably obtain quicker responses on projects.

While county officials were quick to tie their plea for a separate Caltrans office and staff to delays in 10 of 20 area highway projects, they now admit that all 20 are on established schedules that are unlikely to improve as a result of the governor’s decision.

The first roadwork--introduction of car-pool lanes to the San Diego Freeway--is to begin late next month. Most of the other projects are already in various stages of preparation, such as environmental impact review or preliminary design studies. .

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Transportation officials say most benefits will come with later projects, not in speeding up construction dates, but in ensuring that there is adequate local staff to see that work gets done on time. In addition, because no other county has its own Caltrans district and staff, regional planning officials predict that more attention will be paid to Orange County and its transportation problems.

Previously, Orange County had its own Caltrans district--No. 12--but only for purposes of disbursing and tracking state money allocated to Orange County projects. Actual deployment of Caltrans’ staff and project scheduling was controlled by Caltrans’ Los Angeles staff, with Orange County its stepchild.

Projects that had fallen behind schedule recently include widening large sections of the Santa Ana and San Diego freeways, Pacific Coast Highway, Laguna Canyon Road, Imperial Highway and Ortega Highway, and extending the Costa Mesa Freeway to the northern edge of Newport Beach. The projects are all scheduled for construction between this year and 1993, but some, such as widening the Santa Ana Freeway between the Riverside and San Gabriel Valley freeways, are facing delays of a year or more.

“The difference in having Caltrans here will be in the convenience part of it,” said Lisa Mills, manager of highway and transit programs for the Orange County Transportation Commission. “I do a lot of work with Caltrans, and it will be great to just be able to stop over and talk with them about a problem in person if they’re only a few blocks away.”

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Said Robert Ramey, the 43-year Caltrans veteran named interim director of Caltrans’ new Orange County district office: “It’s perceptual. . . . You’ll feel better because you can talk to the Caltrans person responsible for making a final decision.”

Addressing an OCTC meeting Monday, Ramey said he plans to have a dozen people working in a Santa Ana office within 30 days and will try to improve “efficiency and service.”

Even when fully operational, the test of the new office’s success will be whether it has prevented further setbacks, not advances in construction dates, says OCTC Executive Director Stan Oftelie.

“The ability of a separate director for Orange County to intervene personally in order to solve a problem will be a big help,” Oftelie said.

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Oftelie says Caltrans’ fear of “looking bad” in OCTC’s semi-monthly project status reports had already made Caltrans officials in Los Angeles, who controlled projects in Orange County, more attentive to Orange County’s needs.

Oftelie rejects grumbling from some Caltrans staffers that the difficult process of setting up a new office would further delay some projects.

“Management (at Caltrans and OCTC) simply won’t allow that to happen,” Oftelie said.

It was OCTC’s January project status report, in which 10 of the 20 projects listed were behind schedule, that added momentum to Orange County’s decades-old demand for a Caltrans district office and staff of its own.

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Originally, the campaign was based on allegations that the county wasn’t getting its fair share of state transportation money. Once a so-called “donor” county because it contributed more state gasoline tax money than it received, the reverse is now true.

Still, a separate Caltrans district and staff for Orange County means that “more attention will be paid to people in Orange County and their problems,” said Jim Gosnell, transportation director for the Southern California Assn. of Governments (SCAG), a five-county regional planning agency, of which Orange County is a member.

Meanwhile, Ramey, Oftelie and other transportation officials say a major thrust of the new Caltrans operation will be contracting out design work to private consulting firms to relieve a serious shortage of Caltrans engineers.

The Irvine Co. and the City of Irvine are already using such consulting firms for major, multimillion-dollar San Diego and Santa Ana freeway bridge and overpass projects that actually fall under Caltrans’ control, as are Huntington Beach and Newport Beach in connection with the widening of Pacific Coast Highway.

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Caltrans must turn to local government to award the design work contracts. Its own legal authority to contract out design work has been attacked in court by state employees’ unions, who argue that the practice unconstitutionally takes jobs away from state design engineers.

State Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) is sponsoring legislation that would permit Caltrans to contract out design work.

Private Designs for Freeways

Sid Ellicks, Caltrans’ chief of project development for Orange County, says Caltrans wants to contract out design work but is not likely to allow a major stretch of freeway to be designed by private consulting firms.

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However, he holds out the possibility that the agency may decide to allow major freeway segments financed with local money to be designed in part by private firms, such as proposed Eastern or Foothill freeways in south Orange County.

Contracting out design work, says Caltrans spokesman Chuck Mastin, is most common in counties that use local sales taxes to fund projects.

“Obviously,” Mastin said, “that’s a lot of workload that we haven’t planned for and don’t have the staff for.”

For example, in Santa Clara County, where there is a local transportation sales tax, more than $1 billion worth of highway projects is pending.

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Orange County has not adopted such a tax, but developers are paying into assessment districts to help fund new freeways.

Equal Share of Attention

And developers strongly lobbied the governor for a separate Orange County Caltrans office and staff.

“When you have a District 12 (Orange County) director, you will receive a more equal share of Caltrans’ attention . . . ,” said Hugh Fitzpatrick, the Irvine Co.'s chief transportation planner. “Problems will be identified earlier, resolved quicker. . . . The caveat is that this office has to be adequately staffed.”

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Fitzpatrick says problems were inevitable in dealing with the Caltrans Los Angeles office, which “was responsible for three counties and 40% of the highway projects to be delivered statewide, including the Century Freeway, the Harbor Freeway Transitway, and the I-5 widening.”


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