O.C. Transportation Panel Studies Fees for Drivers

TIMES URBAN AFFAIRS WRITER

A $1-a-day parking fee for all employees driving to work in Orange County is one option being considered by county transportation officials to raise up to $5 billion that is needed for easing highway congestion in the next 20 years.

The Orange County Transportation Commission voted Monday to begin the process of hiring a consultant to study the feasibility of imposing parking fees, as well as possible increases in vehicle registration or driver's license fees.

Although no public official has yet proposed parking fees in the county, the planned feasibility study comes as the commission seeks alternatives to Measure M, a proposed half-cent sales tax increase for transportation projects that was defeated by voters Nov. 7. The increase, which lost, 52.6% to 47.4%, would have raised about $3.1 billion over 20 years.

"I don't know how parking fees would be collected," said Stanley T. Oftelie, the commission's executive director. "But we want to inventory everything that's possible so we'll know what options we have."

"There's no consensus on the commission to impose such fees," added Commission Chairman Thomas F. Riley, chairman of the County Board of Supervisors. "I'd say it's a little too early for that."

Charging people--or their employers--for parking at or near their workplaces was proposed earlier this year by respondents to the Orange County Transportation Commission's "100 Traffic Solutions" program. The project asked the public to mail in potential solutions to the county's traffic crunch. Also proposed were increases to existing registration and license fees.

On Monday, the panel voted to seek proposals from consultants. A contract for a study on the proposals is expected to be awarded in February, 1990.

A countywide parking fee of $1 per vehicle per day would raise about $5 billion over 20 years, according to commission projections. A $1 increase in vehicle registration or driver's license fees would generate less than $100 million.

State legislation would be needed to enact any increase in vehicle or driver's license fees, and the proceeds could probably not be used for mass transit projects, OCTC officials said.

A $1 surcharge on registration fees was used to pay for Orange County's freeway emergency call box system. But since then, Gov. George Deukmejian has vetoed other proposed surcharges for transportation projects.

No state legislation is needed for parking fees, but Oftelie said each city council, as well as the Board of Supervisors, would have to adopt separate ordinances to impose parking fees. Countywide, that would mean 30 separate ordinances.

"The chances of that happening are slim," Oftelie said. "And that means that it would be difficult to make implementation uniform. But that's one of the things we want to find out, since our last inventory of options was done in 1983. The landscape has changed significantly since then."

For example, Oftelie cited a 1983 study that gave tolls short shrift because, at the time, federal laws made toll roads ineligible for U.S. highway funds. That changed several years ago, so the county is pursuing construction of toll roads with a vengeance.

The commission's 20-year master plan of traffic improvements--published earlier this year--forecast heavy political opposition to parking fees.

Bill Ward, a board member of Drivers for Highway Safety, a grass-roots group opposed to car-pool lanes that helped lead the campaign to defeat Measure M, said the method of raising revenue may not be the main issue.

"I don't really know enough about it," Ward said of parking fees. "It's not the way they were raising the money in Measure M, it was the way they were going to spend it. And if they (OCTC) spend parking fees on the same plan, which includes more car-pool lanes, then it will all be wasted."

Ward predicted that parking fees would be controversial.

Dan Reeder, a spokesman for Hughes Aircraft, the county's largest employer, said he is unaware of the company's position on parking fees but added:

"Hughes would have a hard time accepting them. We have empty spots now in our parking lot, so there's not the competition for parking space that there was here a few years ago. Also, we do pay for what we think is our share of traffic improvements in Fullerton."

Besides taking steps to hire a consultant, commission members have also discussed going back to the voters for approval of a half-cent sales tax increase, perhaps in November, 1990. However, no feasibility study for another tax effort has been scheduled.

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