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$19-Billion Plan Has Tax Hike : 20-Year Orange County Traffic Blueprint Drawn

Times Urban Affairs Writer

Orange County transportation officials on Monday unveiled a draft of a new traffic plan that was commissioned to provide ammunition for another attempt to increase the county’s sales tax.

Envisioned is a 20-year, $19.5-billion effort to reduce, but not eliminate, Orange County’s traffic congestion. Of that amount, the plan projects that only about two-thirds will be available from government sources.

The price tag--which translates to more than $9,000 for each man, woman and child living in Orange County--is for hundreds of local street improvements, establishing a new commuter rail service to Los Angeles and San Diego, adding car-pool lanes to existing freeways and building three planned tollways in south Orange County and an extension of the Orange Freeway to the San Diego Freeway.

A 20-year master transportation plan is required under a new state law before a local transportation-related tax election can be scheduled. Orange County voters in 1984 defeated a proposal to increase the sales tax to pay for transportation improvements, but county transportation officials hope to forge a consensus on behalf of a new increase that would help fund the highway and transit projects.

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The transportation planners estimate that local, state and federal funding sources can be expected to provide $11.7 billion of the $19.5 billion needed to finance all the needed projects, leaving a shortfall of $7.8 billion. An increase of half a cent in the county sales tax will, the report projects, produce about $4 billion in additional revenue over the next 20 years.

The master plan assumes that, because of their high costs, there will be no freeway double-decking and no light-rail construction, except possibly for a small-scale system envisioned by the city of Anaheim for the area around the Anaheim Convention Center.

“With this plan we’ve tried to eliminate crystal ball gazing,” Kia Mortasavi, a program analyst at the Orange County Transportation Commission, said Monday. “We’re not forecasting demand far into the future, but rather taking things one step at a time. We’ve asked each city, and the county, to tell us what they think is needed and what is probably doable, and we’ve taken them at their word.”

A proposed penny-per-dollar sales tax for highway and transit projects was rejected by a 2-1 margin by Orange County voters in June, 1984.

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As a result of the 1984 defeat, transportation officials focused on the installation of car-pool lanes and dropped plans for a costly, 38-mile light-rail system that would have linked Fullerton with Irvine through Anaheim, Santa Ana, Costa Mesa and the business complex near John Wayne Airport.

In 1984, the Board of Supervisors favored the 1-cent sales tax proposal. Earlier this year, however, supervisors said the time was not right to put another sales tax proposal before the voters. But they have said they support the concept of a sales tax increase that would be solely for transportation projects.

Members of the Transportation Commission decided at a meeting last spring not to place a proposed half-cent sales tax on the November ballot, and recent polls have indicated lukewarm support at best for such a proposal. The transportation commissioners hope the new plan will help increase that base of support.

Tax Issue to Be Discussed

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“One of the issues to be discussed is whether to place a sales tax measure on the ballot in 1989, or perhaps 1990,” said Stanley T. Oftelie, the commission’s executive director. “What we have in this document is the ability to show people this is what you’re buying, and if you don’t, this is what we’ll be able to do. . . . It helps clarify things.”

The Transportation Commission will submit the plan to Orange County’s cities for review. A majority of the cities, representing a majority of the population, must approve the completed 20-year plan, as must the county Board of Supervisors, in order for the Transportation Commission to schedule a sales tax election.

Mortasavi said Monday that the 20-year plan will be reviewed at a series of five community forums at which the public can suggest changes. In addition, a citizens advisory committee appointed by the commission will review the plan, and each city will be asked to review the local street projects.

A final document is expected to be approved by the Transportation Commission next spring.

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The plan’s total costs are skewed by inclusion of the three planned tollways in south Orange County, which are expected to cost an inflation-adjusted $2.5 billion, but which are intended to be self-financed through toll revenues and developer fees.

The plan includes a projected $193-million outlay for 13 so-called “super street projects,” intended to streamline traffic flow by eliminating bottlenecks at congested intersections. Each will involve the installation of bus turnouts and other turn pockets, removal of on-street parking, signal coordination and other improvements, including the possibility of elevatedramps--"flyovers"--to allow through traffic to bypass the crowded intersections.

Cost Breakdown

Projected improvements in state and regional highways would total an inflation-adjusted $8.4 billion. Local arterial improvements total $6.7 billion in the 20-year plan.

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The report estimates that a half-percentage point increase in the current sales tax to 6.5% would raise about $4.05 billion over 20 years, and a boost to 7% would generate $8.35 billion in that span. If the voters approve the half-cent increase, then, county officials will still be faced with the need to raise about $4 billion.

According to the 20-year plan, other funding options that should be explored include a local-option gasoline tax, tolls on existing facilities, employer taxes (a head tax or payroll tax) and increased use of developer fees.

“The draft plan would allow us to play catch-up with the county’s transportation needs,” Mortasavi said Monday. “It would leave some traffic congestion, but it would distribute traffic in a more balanced fashion.”

Commission Chairman Thomas F. Riley said he is “excited about getting the plan out to the public” because, so far, “the impetus to get something done is not there.”

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Riley said a major light-rail system could be added to the plan if the public asks for it. County residents will have an opportunity to offer opinions on the plan at workshops that will be scheduled soon.

The draft 20-year master plan was prepared under a $125,000 contract with the Transportation Commission by Sharon Greene & Associates, and Parson Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas. Commission members will be briefed on the draft plan on Monday.

20-YEAR MASTER PLAN SUMMARY

(in thousands)

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Near Term Total 1989-1993 1989-2008 REGIONAL HIGHWAY PROGRAM Program Cost $2,843,330 $8,362,696 Projected Revenue 1,736,510 3,964,542 Shortfall (Surplus) 1,106,820 4,398,154 LOCAL ARTERIAL PROGRAM Program Cost 2,097,632 6,669,491 Projected Revenue 1,018,900 3,923,420 Shortfall (Surplus) 1,078,732 2,746,071 URBAN TRANSIT PROGRAM Program Cost 595,184 4,371,161 Projected Revenue 686,110 3,821,850 Shortfall (Surplus) (90,926) 549,311 COMMUTER RAIL PROGRAM Program Cost 124,925 136,018 Projected Revenue 16,680 59,310 Shortfall (Surplus) 108,245 76,708 TOTAL PROGRAM Total Program Cost 5,661,071 19,539,366 Projected Revenue 3,458,200 11,769,122 Shortfall (Surplus) 2,202,871 7,770,244

Source: Orange County Transportation Commission


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