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OCTC Plan Is Running on Empty

Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Remember that fictional drive into the future we took last week, courtesy of the Orange County Transportation Commission’s new 20-year plan?

Well, don’t unfasten your seat belt just yet. This week, we get the bill for our fanciful journey.

That network of widened freeways, “super-streets,” transit routes and expanded rail service projected for the year 2009 may not be the Tomorrowland of monorails and flying cars that some of us dream about, but it still comes with a price tag of about $19.6 billion, according to the plan.

And if we add up all the transportation money we expect to have by then from existing sources--federal, state, county and city funds, gas-tax revenues, various assessments, bus and train fares, etc.--and if we scrape together every penny, we’ll be able to come up with about $11.8 billion.

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That will leave us about $7.8 billion short, or roughly 40%. To be more specific, we’ll be $4.4 billion short for freeways, $2.7 billion short for local streets, $550 million short for urban transit and $77 million short for commuter rail.

So why are the folks at OCTC planning a transportation future we can’t afford?

Well, frankly, the kind of future we can afford--based on existing funding sources (pay close attention to those words)--is a picture so horrifying none of us would want to look at it.

By 2009, the county’s population is expected to grow about 23%, from 2.2 million to 2.8 million, even with growth management.

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There will be some transportation improvements by then, in any case. We can safely assume that the construction on the Costa Mesa Freeway will be completed. The super-street project is already under way, and we can count on an extra car-pool lane here and there.

That’s about it.

So basically, although the OCTC doesn’t quite put it this way, with our existing funding sources we can expect the county’s freeways and surface streets to resemble that old “Star Trek” episode about a planet so crowded that some of its inhabitants were willing to contract a fatal disease just so there would be more room for the others.

(Does that mean more people would consider car-pooling? Well, that may be getting a bit far-fetched.)

So what can we do to avoid this nightmare? No, it won’t help to call up Citibank and get an emergency increase in our credit line, although that would make a dandy commercial, wouldn’t it? (“I was stranded on the Santa Ana Freeway, already an hour late for an important meeting. And I knew the only way to get moving again would be to add three extra lanes. So I got on the car phone and called the Citibank 800 number. . . . “

(“I checked our computer and saw that he was a good customer, so I authorized the increase over the phone. . . .”)

No, we need new funding sources , the report recommends, such as a 1/2-cent sales tax added to the existing statewide 6% tax.

Orange County old-timers remember what happened the last time such a suggestion was made. That was back in 1984, and the proposal was for a 1-cent piggyback sales tax. The voters trounced the idea, many of them figuring that improving the freeways would only invite more growth.

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So we turned it down and the county grew anyway, about 10% in fact, during that 5-year period. But the freeways did not grow, except for a 2-mile stretch of the Corona del Mar Freeway near John Wayne Airport.

In fact, that project and the extension of the Orange Freeway from the Pomona Freeway to the Santa Ana Freeway, are the only additions to the county’s freeway system since 1966.

When you consider that we’ve been coasting for more than 20 years now, it’s a wonder that traffic moves as well here as it does.

Although Orange County’s gross product ranks 10th among all the nation’s metropolitan areas--larger than that of 24 of the 50 states--we traditionally haven’t spent much of our wealth on transportation, unless you want to count all those BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes clogging the highways.

“In the past 20 years, Californians in general, and Orange County residents in particular, have not invested in transportation,” the OCTC report states. “In terms of per capita transportation expenditures, California ranks 50th among all states. In terms of California counties, Orange County rates 43 out of 58 counties in terms of per capita investments.

“In terms of transportation taxes, 44 states have higher gasoline taxes than California. And in terms of California counties, 11 counties have adopted local transportation sales tax measures to deal with growing local traffic congestion problems,” the report states. In our region, those counties include Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego.

At this point, we could spend some time arguing over whose fault it is that Orange County fell so far behind, but that isn’t going to solve the problem.

Instead, let’s concentrate on what we’re going to do now.

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“It’s like any budgeting situation,” says OCTC Executive Director Stanley T. Oftelie. “You look at what your needs will be, and you look at your revenues, and you try to balance the two. You cut some things, and you try to raise more money.”

The OCTC decided on a sales tax because it “provides the greatest revenue yield, self-adjusts for growth and inflation, is easy to collect (and) . . . is available to assist in financing all transportation areas,” among other reasons.

But there are other options, such as a development fee on new construction, an employee charge, additional gas taxes, a worker’s parking fee, an additional vehicle registration fee, and tolls on the proposed new transportation corridors.

In public workshops on the plan held earlier this year, residents seemed to like the idea of user-based fees, giving them “equal or greater support,” compared to the sales tax.

Before bringing the idea of a new tax before the voters, the OCTC commissioned a survey of 600 Orange County voters. More than half (59%) said they would support such a tax. However, they “were skeptical about whether the funds would be spent wisely,” according to the report. “Dissatisfaction with government’s track record on planning for growth and transportation was clearly evident.”

The transportation commission’s report recommends placing the question of a tax increase before the voters this November.

But first, there will be a public hearing on May 8.

Let’s go ahead and get the discussion going before that. Would YOU vote for the transportation sales tax? Would you prefer one of the other options, or none of the above? Let us know.

It’s for You! (Or Is It?)

Do you have a phone in your car? If so, we would like to know why you decided to go cellular. If not, tell us why you prefer to remain incommunicado on the road.

My Other Car Is a . . .

Is there such a thing as a one-car family in Orange County? If your household includes more than one person but only one set of wheels, tell us how the two (or more) of you manage to get around.

Watch Out! Slow Down! Turn Left!

So many of us drive solo in Orange County that back-seat driving is becoming a lost art. But we’d like to preserve it by searching for the county’s best--and worst--back-seat drivers. Tell us about your favorite candidate for either category.

Send your comments to Life on Wheels, Orange County Life, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626. Please include your phone number so that we can contact you. To protect your privacy, Life on Wheels does not publish correspondents’ last names when the subject is sensitive.


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