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COMMENTARY : County Loses When Matching Transit Funds Are Doled Out

<i> Stan Oftelie is executive director of the Orange County Transportation Commission. </i>

The voice on the telephone line from Sacramento sounded ominous.

“You Orange County guys are dead meat,” he said. “Why should we help you if you won’t help yourself?”

I cranked up the charm. I talked about the great things going on in Orange County transportation. Developer fees are building new corridors. Moves toward unifying transportation agencies seem to be successful. We’re creative. We’re innovative. At the Orange County Transportation Commission, we are helping the state Department of Transportation by using private consultants to design and environmentally clear freeway projects.

It sounded great, but it wasn’t selling. Charm gets shopworn pretty fast when other guys are putting money on the table.

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And, in this case, the other guys are putting local transportation dollars on the table and turning locally generated funds into transportation partnerships with state and federal government.

In California and throughout the United States, the concept of partnerships where the federal, state and local governments--and sometimes the private sector--pool resources to build major infrastructure improvements, is gaining momentum.

In some cases, the state government and the federal government require dollar-for-dollar “matches,” that is, for every local dollar raised, the state and federal government will each add a dollar to this special partnership.

Secretary of Transportation Samuel K. Skinner is promoting these partnerships in his National Transportation Policy. State propositions 108, 111 and 116, the transportation measures approved Tuesday, are built on the concept of the feds, the state and local government sharing responsibility to build roads, freeways, and rail systems.

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It’s a concept built on solid logic. It requires government agencies to work together harmoniously. It’s widely accepted.

It’s killing us.

It is killing us because we don’t have the resources to pool with other levels of government.

In every urban county in California, voters have approved a local option, half-cent transportation sales tax. Of the 10 largest counties in California, nine have adopted these locally approved sources of local transportation revenue.

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The lone holdout is Orange County.

Today, we’re ringed by counties that have approved these transportation measures. And that means we’re surrounded by counties that have a competitive advantage in the annual hunt for transportation dollars.

Orange County will continue to receive a return on the gas taxes approved on Tuesday. We’ll see that the state keeps its promises to improve the Santa Ana Freeway through Santa Ana and Anaheim.

But we probably will leave rail money on the table because we won’t be able to match it. We may lose up to $75 million in the first three years, although we’ll be trying some fast footwork to try to bring as many of those dollars to Orange County as possible.

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But the haunting refrain of the voice on the telephone, “Why should we help you if you won’t help yourself?” will keep us on the edge of gridlock in this county in the future.

There may be other ramifications. TRW Real Estate Information Services recently reported the first drop in the price of Orange County homes in five years. For the first time since 1985, the average home prices haven’t been appreciating here.

In neighboring counties, TRW tells us, the average cost of homes is increasing: The average price is up more than 10% in Riverside, almost 10% in San Diego, almost 6% in Los Angeles. Is there a correlation between investment in transportation infrastructure and the quality of life? How about transportation investment and the value of your home?

Tough questions.

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Academic debates on cause and effect can rage for years without resolution. Drawing a parallel between what happens with an individual homeowner’s investment and regional infrastructure is a dangerous comparison for anyone to take.

But clearly, in the last year, property values have increased in neighboring counties where people have invested in transportation and they’ve decreased in the county where no investment has been made. There may be no connection in these fact patterns. Then again, there may be.

The debate on the effect that infrastructure has on our quality of life--and, inevitably, on the investment we have in our homes--is one which does not have an easy answer.

Other issues are much clearer. We’re confident that the Measure M package that was defeated last November was a strong technical program. It balanced freeways, highways, streets, roads and rail transit with a strong growth-management program.

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It called for safeguards to guarantee that any new transportation revenue goes only for transportation purposes. It also included a special Citizens Oversight Committee to act as a watchdog over public funds.

The measure was crafted over a two-year period and involved hundreds of people, special task forces of city and county officials, an energetic Citizens Committee, seven public workshops and countywide public-opinion polling.

The results of the technical work and the public outreach efforts were striking: The professional engineers and the citizens of Orange County came up with almost identical traffic solutions. They agreed on what should be done and how to do it.

OK: If the plan was so good, why did voters reject it by a 53% to 47% margin?

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Two reasons: first, low voter turnout. Only about 250,000 voters went to the polls in November, 1989. That means 880,000 people who were eligible to vote stayed home. According to the political pros, the people who did not turn out were the ones who were most likely to agree to a transportation sales tax.

The second reason? No one wants to pay more taxes. Everyone hopes there is another solution. They hope the developers will pay. Or the state government. Or the federal government. Or someone else. Anyone else.

But the reality is that no one else will bail Orange County out. The other counties have stepped up to the plate and agreed to tax themselves. Developer fees in Orange County are among the highest in the nation.

And when we look to Sacramento or Washington, we’re hearing that same old song: “Why should we help you if you won’t help yourself?”

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Southern California Sales Tax Rates LOS ANGELES COUNTY : 6 3/4% SAN BERNARDIO COUNTY: 6 3/4% RIVERSIDE COUNTY: 6 3/4% SAN DIEGO COUNTY: 6 3/4% ORANGE COUNTY: 6 1/4%

Southern California Housing Prices LOS ANGELES COUNTY : up 5.9% SAN BERNARDIO COUNTY: up 8.1% RIVERSIDE COUNTY: up 10.4% SAN DIEGO COUNTY: up 9.6% ORANGE COUNTY: down 2%


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