Orange County’s highest-priority highway project--rebuilding the interchange of the Santa Ana and Costa Mesa freeways--was saved from threatened state funding cuts Friday by a last-minute compromise that will delay some smaller local projects, including the widening of Laguna Canyon Road and Ortega Highway.
And for the first time ever, the California Transportation Commission allocated $35 million for a toll road. The project, the San Joaquin Hills Tollway, is scheduled for construction by 1992 in south Orange County.
At issue as the transportation commissioners met in Sacramento on Friday was a long list of funding requests from all 58 California counties, which compete for whatever money is left after each has been allocated the legally mandated minimum.
Concerned that Orange County was going to receive more than its fair share, the commission’s staff had recommended a $37-million reduction in appropriations for the $46.4-million third phase of the interchange reconstruction project. The project involves installation of a large overpass ramp with car-pool lanes connecting the southbound Santa Ana Freeway with the southbound Costa Mesa Freeway. The state Department of Transportation considers the interchange to be one of the more congested in California because usage has far outstripped its capacity.
Oftelie Credits Nestande
Stanley T. Oftelie , executive director of the Orange County Transportation Commission, said former County Supervisor Bruce Nestande, a former chairman and current member of the state panel, was instrumental in working out the compromise.
But another key to the deal was Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, chairman of OCTC, who agreed to delay several projects in his supervisorial district that officials said could not have been completed during the five-year life span of the state highway funding program that was under consideration Friday.
“We didn’t come to that decision without a lot of concern,” Riley said. “But the interchange project is our top priority . . . and I have a feeling that the other projects are not really going to be delayed.”
“We traded away about $43 million in lower-priority projects to get about $46 million now,” Oftelie added. “And since those other projects will still be built, we didn’t really lose anything.”
“It’s all in a day’s work,” Nestande said. “In the normal negotiation process Orange County got as much as it could. . . . Our priorities stack up well on a statewide basis, and we are getting more than our fair share of state highway dollars.”
As part of the funding package, officials said, Orange County will receive the full $46.4 million needed to complete reconstruction of the freeway interchange, $35 million for the San Joaquin Hills toll road project, and authorization for loans totaling $74.5 million for the toll road, as well as funds for several smaller projects, such as sound walls.
The action means that the state is financially committed to the San Joaquin Hills project without waiting for reimbursement from the federal government. Federal legislation has designated the tollway a pilot project eligible for 35% federal funding.
As part of the compromise, however, Nestande inserted a requirement that the Orange County Transportation Corridor Agencies, which oversee the San Joaquin, Foothill and Eastern toll road projects, hire an independent financial adviser. The corridor agencies already have bond counsel, but Nestande said Friday that he wants to make sure the San Joaquin project is subjected to even tougher scrutiny than bond counsel provides.
Projects that will be delayed, officials said, include the widening of Laguna Canyon Road and Ortega Highway, the installation of auxiliary lanes on the Costa Mesa Freeway between 17th Street and the Garden Grove Freeway, ramp metering on the Riverside and Orange freeways, and a signal project in Laguna Beach.
The county had sought $46.5 million for the toll road, but retreated to the $35 million, originally proposed earlier this year, when state commissioners said it is possible that the rest of the county’s request could be approved next year.
Also, a project in Imperial County was delayed to provide another $2.8 million for Orange County projects.
As a result of the compromise, officials said, Orange County will receive 16% of the discretionary funds available instead of its so-called fair share, which would be 9% to 11%.
Nestande estimated that the county’s total share over five years will be $394.9 million.