JEROME C. PREMO : Traffic System in Transit : Transportation Expert on Road Ahead for Commuters

Times staff writer

As any commuter will tell you, Orange County traffic is just as bad as it sounds on the morning radio reports.

By 8 a.m. weekdays, northbound freeways are stop and go. If there are any accidents, they are just plain stop. The southbound San Diego Freeway usually snarls all the way to John Wayne Airport. The Costa Mesa Freeway gets so congested in both directions that motorists could share coffee and doughnuts across the center divider. Much of the commuter traffic spills over to surface streets. The waits at traffic lights grow longer, tempers grow shorter. The county is a heartbeat away from gridlock.

Residents cite traffic and transportation as the county's top problem in poll after poll. The inability to travel freely has threatened the outlook for continued growth and helped fuel the slow-growth movement.

High-occupancy-vehicle lanes have been installed to ease the commute on some freeways--with more on the way. A southern extension of the diamond lane on the San Diego Freeway, for instance, is due to open in March. Other major solutions, including high-speed trains and monorails, are still in the talking stage.

As lofty and wonderful as some of the plans sound, Orange County is sorely lacking in funds to build or expand roads or fund mass transit. Voters defeated Measure M on the November ballot, which would have added half a cent to the sales tax to fund 20 years of transportation improvements.

Concerned about transportation's effect on life and business, the Orange County Chamber of Commerce has vowed to launch a public education program to try to resurrect a sales tax increase for roads and transit. The issue is led by the chamber's Transportation Council.

The council is led by Chairman Jerome C. Premo, a longtime public transit official who now is director of business development for Holmes & Narver Services in Orange, an international contractor of operating engineers and services. The firm is conducting a $4-million engineering feasibility study of a north-south toll road through the San Joaquin Hills transportation corridor.

Premo, 46, has served as executive director of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission and the New Jersey Transit Corp., the second-largest transit bus operation in the nation. He is a former associate administrator for the federal Urban Mass Transit Administration and a two-term national vice chairman of the American Public Transit Assn.

A strong advocate of toll roads, rail transit systems and expanded bus service, Premo said he often rides an Orange County Transit District bus to work from his East Orange home. He recently talked to Times staff writer Chris Woodyard about transportation.

Q. What is your initial impression of Orange County in terms of traffic congestion? Does it seem worse here than other places?

A. It's really severe. When problems develop on the freeway, they have a cascading effect. If (the Costa Mesa Freeway) 55 backs up southbound in the morning, then (the Riverside Freeway) 91 is going to feel it. That interrelationship between and among major freeways on the one hand and associated street capacity is very evident. You can listen to it on the radio. You can feel it as you use the system. Having said that, one impression I really want to give you is the positive feeling I sense in the (Orange County) Transit District. Despite a fare increase this past year, the transit district's ridership was up something like 17%. To be able to achieve that kind of ridership growth is very significant. The awards the district has received for its marketing are significant. To be up over 40 million in annual ridership is really significant.

Q. So you believe that OCTD is one of the better-run transit agencies around?

A. I give them high marks, absolutely. I am impressed by the cleanliness of the vehicles. The customer sensitivity by the drivers is so vital.

Q. Do you believe the public transit system here is adequate, given the size of the county and the amount of the congestion these days?

A. Not at all. No, I think my point is to say that given the resources available, a good job is being done. But I think the people of the transit district, the transportation commission and ultimately, most importantly, the citizens who dig into their pockets, need a better transit system here in Orange County. I think it can be done.

Q. Based on your expertise, do you see any mitigation measures to increase traffic flow and get people where they are going?

A. Well, let's tick off a few. While I was in L.A., I was an advocate of closing freeway links, an advocate of selective freeway widenings. If you've got a freeway that is four lanes wide, then becomes three lanes wide, and then is four lanes wide, it doesn't take a genius to suggest that maybe it would make sense to have it four lanes all the way. If it's possible for the transportation decision makers, who in this county and in many other counties are elected officials, if they can do what elected officials often do really well and think like Joe Citizen, then common-sense solutions come out the end of the fancy, elaborate planning process.

One proven success story in the East is toll roads. And it isn't just ugly urban toll roads. The Garden State Parkway (in New Jersey) is just a beautiful road. It goes through some urban areas and some non-urban areas. I think the toll roads thing makes sense. And I'm a longtime advocate of holding onto railroad rights of way.

Q. There are several railroad rights of way in Orange County. Do you think those should be developed for roads or for some sort of rail mass transit?

A. I think it's important to hang onto them, first and foremost. I feel pretty good about some initiatives we had in L.A. County. With Supervisor (Pete) Schabarum as a key advocate, we committed funds to turn them into recreation ways and bicycle paths.

Q. How can a businessman move goods more expediently around Orange County?

A. I think to the extent it's possible to do it, early morning and midday deliveries are vital. My own professional sense is, everyone benefits by minimum truck deliveries during peak hours. What makes sense for everybody is to have a management outlook that is as sensitive as possible when it comes to flex time. We (Holmes & Narver) start at 7 a.m. and we're through at 3:45 p.m. and a good number stay later than that. But the old tradition of rigid hours is out the window. Not, I would argue, because the Air Quality (Management) District wants something different. Not because big government up there in El Monte (AQMD headquarters) says it. But because Joe Citizen says, "If I go to work earlier, I can get there easier and I might even be able to get home and play a little ball with my kids."

Q. And these earlier hours are popular among the employees?

A. Yes. Yes, they are.

Q. Does productivity suffer by allowing employees to have time off during normal business hours when other businesses are open?

A. Well, let's be smart and efficient and work hard during the period we know others are open. That's how I would deal with that. We do work for both commercial and government clients, and they are all over the globe, so some people get to work early and leave late.

Q. The chamber has supported Measure M, which was the transportation measure. Do you think this county could really get behind some measure that would allow for expansion of arterial roadways and for mass transit?

A. Sure.

Q. What do you think it would take to get it past the voters?

A. Ownership is vital. It has to be owned by the people who vote on it and not by commission X, Y or Z. In the case of L.A. (County), I happened to have participated in the development of Proposition A (a half-cent sales tax increase for mass transit projects in 1980). I happened to have left before it went to the voters to take over the transportation system that was being created in New Jersey. But as I talked to people who were active in it, there was a sense among local governments that they got something out of it. There was a sense in the transit community that they had both a short-term and a longer-term return on their investment. That was a transit ballot measure. Here in Orange County it's a transportation ballot measure. There's a portion for transit, there's a portion for roads.

Q. How would business people benefit from a mass transit system? The movement of their goods plus employees and their visitors?

A. You got it.

Q. Do you think there would be enough ridership on a high-speed rail link between Las Vegas and Orange County to make it economically feasible?

A. I'm not that familiar with the detailed projections, but I respect some of the firms that have been working on this. I know Paul Taylor. He's the director of the high-speed commission and a technically competent fellow.

And if you follow what's been happening in air fares, there have been extraordinary increases--the volatility of air fares to fuel prices. I think of the stability a reasonably priced high-speed train could bring. I think it could make a go of it. Over a 15- to 20-year period, you would see urban development form around this transit line. It isn't like you're going to pump the transit line in there all at once. You see roads, you see development taking five and 10 and 15 years.

Q. If and when Orange County gets a major transit corridor, would it be a good idea for business people to start planning on taking advantage of it?

A. Yes. I think there is a correlation between a good transit system and good news for the private sector as well. That doesn't mean the private sector has the economic ability to foot the tab for any and everything that people would want. Public-private partnerships are the right answer. I have some problem with the expression 'privatization' because we're talking about a public transit system.

Q. What do you think Orange County will look like transportation-wise a decade from now?

A. I think in a decade we will have more bus service. We will have a much more accepted ride-sharing program. Companies will be banding together in small area districts, and those small area districts will support van services to supplement line-haul (long) bus service. And, assuming we want to pay for it, we will have started construction of some kind of fixed rail. We will be upgrading commuter rail service. Work will be winding down on the very complex (Santa Ana Freeway) widening. Toll roads will be in operation. Not all of them, but priority ones like (the corridor in) the San Joaquin Hills.

Q. Do you think the public will accept toll roads?

A. Yes.

Q. How come?

A. They are certainly accepted and heavily used in other places. There is nothing inherently different about people who live in California compared to other places. People want a safe, convenient, predictable trip. And I think the predictability is the key. If these toll roads provide some relief to the current congestion nightmare we face, people will be willing to pay a fair amount. I think it's a logical extension of the view that a lot of people hold not only here but other places: The user fees (are) an appropriate way of financing transportation. Toll roads are a form of user fees.

Q. But aren't people here so accustomed to the freedom of the open highway?

A. Unfortunately, we don't have open use of our roads. Our growth has, in many places, overwhelmed us. There are too many cars and too little road space, as well as not enough public transit. With that in mind, given our funding problems, toll roads represent one part of the solution. They are not the only solution, but in selected corridors represent a reasonable approach.

Q. Who would own these toll roads?

A. The transportation corridor agencies are public. Private business would build and operate the toll roads--not for themselves, but under contract to the government. I don't think anybody on either side of the fence, the public or private side, views toll road development as a way of locking government out of the transportation business. It's one part of a set of initiatives needed to keep Southern California on the move.

Q. What else needs to be done to make it easier for people to get from Point A to Point B?

A. I hope that from a housing point of view that people will think of living closer to where they work. It's a tricky issue. The key is finding some way, if it's possible, to reduce the need for these long-distance commutes and create a situation where people live closer to where they work.

Q. In Orange County, aren't buses ridden primarily by young and low-income people?

A. That's a problem everywhere. Not everywhere, but it's often a problem. The answer is to have good service and to create ways to cause people to give it a try.

Q. Do you think employers are doing enough to encourage mass transit ridership?

A. I've never seen a place that's doing "enough." It's like the United Way. I gave last year, so why do I have to give this year? Because the problem still exists. It's something that requires constant effort, initiative. It requires the public agencies to constantly strive to work with the private sector.

Q. What will it take to get people aboard buses or van pools, economic incentives or the sheer frustration of sitting in traffic?

A. I think it's going to be different things in different parts of the county. I don't underestimate the economic wallop that relatively inexpensive transit brings to the decision. It's a fancy way of saying the cost of automobile insurance is very high here. If it's possible for a family to have two, rather than three, cars and have that everyday trip home to the office and back on a bus or a neighborhood-type van pool, then it has to be economically smart for people to think that one through. My son in Washington rides the bus. He is now old enough to drive. He drives his mother's car once in a while. He is a regular, consistent user of transit.

Q. By habit?

A. Yes. Kids start riding transit and they are told it is not cool somewhere along the line. The Orange County Transit District markets to kids and I think that is good.

Q. Do you think we will ever see double-decking of Orange County freeways?

A. No, at least I hope we will not embark on a major double-decking initiative.

Q. How come?

A. Double-decking, in my opinion, ought to be reserved for extraordinary circumstances.

Q. Because of cost?

A. Not so much cost as aesthetic and environmental concerns and the kind of spread(-out) living style that they perpetuate. Again, let's widen some places that need to be widened. Let's build some transportation corridor where everybody seems to be in agreement and finance it that way. But if we double-deck, I'm hard-pressed to explain why we shouldn't at some point triple-deck and quadruple-deck.

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