In an unprecedented move designed to prevent delays in widening of the congested Santa Ana Freeway, Caltrans hopes to borrow $90 million or more from the county's publicly owned bus company.
The proposal could head off delays as long as 1 year in construction of key portions of the massive freeway improvement, according to Keith McKean, a local Caltrans officials. He said the plan will be part of a background briefing for the California Transportation Commission at a meeting today in Los Angeles.
Under the proposal, Caltrans would borrow the money from about $200 million that the Orange County Transit District has set aside to build a transit way for buses and car pools in the freeway median. No decision is pending on the proposal, which must still be discussed with transit district officials.
McKean called the project, which will double the number of freeway lanes to 12, an "absolute" necessity "to relieve a terrible traffic mess."
"If we can get OCTD to front us some of the money we need, we can start building the parts of the project that take the longest, and catch up with the rest later, without losing any time," McKean said. "It's a great example of cooperation between different public agencies."
But one skeptical transit district official suggested that such a loan may not be legal.
"We've had some discussions with Caltrans, but that's all," said Brian Pearson, the district's project development manager. "Aside from the legal problem, the interest earned on the OCTD money that Caltrans proposes to use is currently funding a transportation improvement program administered by the county Transportation Commission."
Without the loan, McKean said, work on key portions of the widening project could be delayed until next year from this summer.
The cost of the widening project has doubled to $1.6 billion in the last few years, in part because Orange County's real estate prices have soared far more quickly than the 4% to 6% annual inflation rate used by Caltrans statewide for projecting the cost of acquiring rights of way.
With similar cost escalations elsewhere, Caltrans is faced with downgrading and delaying projects that are not ready for bid letting. These include sections of the Santa Ana Freeway widening project.
Four Separate Contracts
McKean said he hopes to persuade the state commission that the Santa Ana Freeway widening project can be broken up into four separate contracts that are ready to go to bid.
If approved, transit district money will be used to rebuild the interchange of the Santa Ana, Orange and Garden Grove freeways. Work on the interchange could help keep the entire project on schedule until additional state funds become available for part of the freeway widening near that interchange.
"Building that interchange first is a good idea because it takes a year longer to do than the work on the extra freeway lanes anyway," McKean said. "You wouldn't be losing the current schedule if you did it that way."
Work is already under way on several bridges spanning the freeway in preparation for the widening project.
The Orange County Transit District has set aside cash for the transit way project, which it has intended to fund all along. Caltrans's proposal to borrow from those funds means the state would eventually have to replace the money when the time comes to install the transit way.