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Commentaries : Two Transportation Views : ‘Superagency’ Not the Right Road to Traffic Solutions

<i> Gordon J. Fielding is a professor of social science at UC Irvine and is conducting research on regional transport agencies</i>

While Orange County is in the midst of a transport crisis, our elected leaders are squabbling over how to arrange their seats. Legislation has been sponsored by the Orange County Transportation Commission that would change it into a “superagency” to take over transit and increase taxes.

This will not solve congestion. OCTC is going the wrong way: they should focus on highway issues, not deplete their authority by provoking institutional rivalry between agencies.

OCTC was created in 1976 to control highway and transit funds, coordinate improvements and evaluate the performance of transport agencies. Its board of directors is supposed to establish policies for solving transport problems.

The commission is powerful because it controls access to state and federal funds. It made a promising beginning with its 1979 multimodal study that outlined a 20-year financial plan, but in recent years it has failed to exert leadership and was criticized in its latest performance audit. Now commissioners propose to change their name and take control of day-to-day transit operations.

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But highway congestion is our problem, not transit operations. Bus service is improving every year while freeways and streets cannot cope with automobile and truck traffic. More jobs and increasing population make traffic problems difficult to solve. Leadership is desperately needed, and this is where OCTC should focus its efforts.

Highway improvements can be achieved by the following means: revision by the county and the cities of the plan that distinguishes arterial from local streets, followed by a countywide improvement program that speeds up traffic without devastating neighborhoods; development of a towing program that moves illegally parked vehicles from arterials, and insistence that construction vehicles be parked on site rather than congesting surface streets during rush hours.

An educational program could also help. City police need training in the handling of highway incidents to minimize congestion and so does the traveling public. Too frequently traffic is stalled while drivers exchange information over a minor incident. Other regions have developed television programs that explain what to do when involved in accidents. Quick action helps those injured, saves police time, and clears the roadway sooner.

A comprehensive traffic model is required for Orange County that allows engineers to forecast what will occur when new construction disrupts an intersection or overpass. Too much congestion results from actions in one community that fails to take into account the consequences on adjoining areas. If OCTC developed a countywide model with remote terminals in every city, travel delays could be reduced. Portland, Ore., uses this approach to advantage.

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A countywide traffic model would also help government to forecast the consequences of land development on highways. At present there is no way in which government officials can reliably assess the impact of new development upon the regional transport system.

The proposed legislation scarcely mentions these opportunities. It focuses upon creating a new authority to solve transit problems. So while the majority suffers on the highway, OCTC proposes to spend a year or more trying to consolidate bus agencies.

Consolidation will not result in cost savings or improved efficiency. Annual statistics from state and federal agencies reveal that larger transit agencies are more expensive than smaller agencies.

Santa Clara County has a consolidated transportation agency. Its costs per bus hour average $18.60 higher than Orange County’s. It also employs more people per bus hour in general administration. Duplication is not eliminated by consolidation. Departments find that they must add personnel to overcome bureaucratic inefficiency.

The Legislature intended the commissions to have a “small but capable staff.” But staff will have to be increased if OCTC assumes control over transit. This has happened in Los Angeles, where the commission has become preoccupied with constructing the rail line to Long Beach and competing with the Southern California Rapid Transit District for control of all of the county’s transit projects. Meanwhile, highway improvement has been neglected.

Commissioners believe that by changing their name they will improve the likelihood of passing a half-cent sales tax for transportation in Orange County. But just the opposite could occur: They will be blamed for labor disputes in bus operations, and cities may become suspicious about their potential power. A transport commission that is generously funded by the proceeds from a sales tax, estimated to cost each household about $100 annually, could become a powerful regional authority.

Consolidation will divert attention from our critical highway problems and create a larger bureaucracy. It may also jeopardize new money for highway improvement. The proposed legislation fails to use current knowledge about transport agencies in similar regions and misleads the public about which agency is responsible for transportation in Orange County.


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