Citing an unprecedented traffic crisis, the Orange County Transportation Commission voted Monday to place a countywide, half-cent sales tax for highway and transit projects on the Nov. 7 ballot.
The tax would raise $3.1 billion for a far-reaching, $11.6-billion plan to speed traffic with wider freeways, additional car-pool lanes, streamlined streets and commuter rail service. About $8.4 billion for the 20-year plan would come from existing sources, such as the state and federal governments.
The tax would cost each Orange County consumer an estimated $50 to $75 per year. It would increase the sales tax from 6% to 6 1/2%.
Monday's decision came a day after The Times Orange County Poll showed that public support for the sales tax hike has slipped to 48% from 54% about 11 months ago, with 46% now against the measure and the rest undecided. The poll's margin of error is 4%.
Another survey conducted by pollster Jim Moore for sales tax advocates showed Monday that support has slipped from 67% to 61% since March but that the opposition is "very soft," officials said. Moore's poll introduced the measure as funding "needed" improvements that would help reduce congestion, while The Times Orange County poll did not.
Commissioners voted 6 to 0 for a Nov. 7 special election to avoid confusing voters with Gov. George Deukmejian's proposed state gasoline tax increase, now scheduled for the June, 1990, ballot.
"I don't think the people of Orange County are willing to wait any longer," said commission member Dana W. Reed, referring to the 20-year plan. "The wheels of government turn too slowly as it is," added Reed, a Costa Mesa lawyer.
Tustin Councilman and Commission Vice Chairman Richard B. Edgar said: "Some may say this is not perfect . . . but we've reached a consensus. Let's put our shoulders to the wheel and get this thing done."
Several members of the audience rose to criticize the 20-year plan's partial reliance on additional car-pool lanes, prompting Commission Chairman Thomas F. Riley to respond sarcastically at one point: "Thanks for your vote of confidence."
Later, Riley, who was reelected as OCTC chairman on Monday and is also Board of Supervisors chairman, said he was frustrated by some critics who focused on complaints about separate elements within the plan without seeing the "whole, regional picture."
Keith McKean, Caltrans' Orange County director, warned that without the additional revenue from the proposed half-cent tax, there is little than can be done to prevent the congestion from getting much worse. Orange County motorists, as a group, spend more hours in traffic delays than drivers in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties, according to a regional planning agency.
Without the extra $3.1 billion, transportation officials say, there will be sufficient money for only 80% of the $1.5-billion Santa Ana Freeway-widening project, 60% of planned local street projects, and maintenance of existing transit service at current ridership levels. Construction of three planned tollways in eastern and southern Orange County would be paid for with developer fees and bond sales.
Officials generally were upbeat, however, since the 20-year sales tax plan has now survived a gauntlet of citizens' advisory groups and public hearings over an 18-month period. Riley and others said they believe that traffic has worsened to the point where most motorists are willing to pay to try to solve the problem. Officials have avoided some mistakes made in 1984, when a 1-cent tax measure was hurriedly assembled and went down in defeat, 70% to 30%, Riley said.
The ink was not even dry on OCTC's sales tax ordinance last week when a small group of civic activists and business leaders began talking to potential campaign managers, such as Sacramento-based consultant David Townsend. One possibility, participants in those discussions said, was that former Orange County Republican Party leader Lois Lundberg might handle phone-bank operations from which voters would be contacted individually.
However, leaders of the group favoring the tax said that no contracts had yet been offered and that many more consultants were under consideration, based partly on whether they are available for an election as near as Nov. 7.
The only opposition to have surfaced so far includes Russ Burkett of San Juan Capistrano, who said Monday that the growth-control regulations contained in OCTC's 20-year plan "are meaningless words," and members of Drivers for Highway Safety, a grass-roots organization that intends to turn the election into a referendum on car-pool lanes, which the group argues are dangerous and ineffective.
County and Caltrans officials argue that not only do car-pool lanes improve traffic flow, they are also a necessary element in current efforts to meet tough anti-smog regulations and in competing with other counties and states for federal highway grants. They also say that OCTC's 20-year plan earmarks far more money for other highway and transit projects than it does for car-pool lanes.
Under the 20-year plan, about 43% of the sales-tax proceeds would go for freeway-widening projects, 32% for regional street and road-improvement projects, and 25% would fund transit projects, including additional rail service and planning for monorails or other advanced-technology, light-rail projects linking various communities.
Under state law, the commission must give final approval in two weeks to the Nov. 7 election date. The Board of Supervisors has until Aug. 8 to ask Registrar of Voters Don Tanney to include the sales-tax measure in the printing of the ballots.
The sales-tax plan will occupy 23 pages of a voter-information booklet, according to Tanney.
Tanney estimated that it will cost up to $1.2 million to hold the special sales-tax election. He said that nine school districts and eight special service districts will have elections on that same day, involving 50% to 60% of the county's eligible voters.
Turnout, Tanney said, probably would be only 12% to 20% in the special election.
Under state law, the OCTC would pay the cost if the measure passes. County government would pay the cost should voters reject the tax.
TRAFFIC IMPROVEMENT TAX SPENDING PLAN Proceeds of the proposed half-cent sales would be spent as follows:
Cost in Project millions Freeway Projects 1,325 Streets and Roads Projects 650 Transit Projects 775 Regional Road and Signal Projects 350
Source: Orange County Transportation Commission
BASIC TRAINING--In a bid to unclog the I-5, two passengers trains will be added between L.A. and Orange County. Part II, Page 1.
STATEHOUSE EFFORT--The governor signed a multibillion-dollar transportation-improvement plan and pledged to support a gas tax hike to help finance it. Part II, Page 8.