COMMENTARY : County Owes Freeways a Lot, but It Doesn’t Want to Pay Up : Transportation: Will voters once again take a miserly route if asked to approve a sales tax hike for road improvements?

<i> This is an updated version of a column written by Joel Blain, editorial page editor of the Press-Enterprise newspaper in neighboring Riverside County. Blain's opinion was published in Riverside after June's vote on Proposition 111</i>

This business of being Southern Californians together has never been all sweetness and light, all for one and one for all, brother, can I lend you a dime?

Many of the differences used to cool with distance. That was in an era when Riverside County was out here where the orange-crate labels grow, when San Diego was down there where the fleet came in, when Orange County was where Mrs. Knott sold pies at the side of the road. Now we run into each other every day, sometimes literally. We do it on and through our transportation network.

That network is an ongoing, often-divisive subject. It will be Tuesday, when Orange County supervisors consider putting yet another half-cent sales tax transportation measure on the November ballot. The network was a major subject of last June’s exercise when state voters raised gasoline taxes in order to finance highway construction.

Riverside County mirrored statewide returns back then, 52% to 48% in favor; Ventura saw it the same way, and San Bernardino County (51% to 49%) wasn’t far off. Then there was San Diego, where the issue lost by 3,000 votes: not a big rebuff in a county that large, but enough to raise eyebrows.


It was Los Angeles County that delivered the Proposition 111 sledgehammer: 59% to 41% in favor. The place that invented the freeway came to the aid of itself and, let it be acknowledged, to the aid of other counties that are late to the freeway game. Los Angeles County is such an electoral force that it provided more “yes” votes June 5 than Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Diego and Orange counties combined.

Yes, Orange County. The vote there wasn’t even close: 48% to 52%. Against.

This was not the first time that Orange County voters have told us what’s on their mind. They were presented with two county measures, one in 1984 and another in 1989, asking a small increase in the sales tax to build roads; both times they said no. When Riverside County was asked to approve its version of the same, Measure A passed with 79% of the vote. Orange County treated its sales-tax measure another way: 70% against.

Southern California has historically been a live-and-let-live place. We try to be tolerant of each other’s foibles. The middle class of Glendale pulls its curtains so it does not have to be too disapproving of that wild Hollywood bunch. Riverside and San Bernardino try not to talk about who stole whose railroad. The creative people on the beach attempt to hide their patronization of the burghers of the interior. After all, many of us in Southern California come from different places. We bring our different ways. What we have in common is the dream of Southern California as a vibrant, exciting place.


Once a suburban extension of Los Angeles but now a free-standing metropolitan area, Orange County represents the modern fulfillment of that dream. It’s the 26th or 25th, or something like that, strongest economy in the world. It’s a center of commerce and consumerism. It’s big in high tech and higher education and the higher things of life. It is altogether a commendable place, and it is riding for a fall if it doesn’t watch out.

Orange County as we know it would not have been able to build from its bedroom community base without the Santa Ana Freeway taking its workers into Los Angeles. Orange County as it now exists would not function if it could not import its work force on the Riverside Freeway.

Orange County is in debt to the freeway system, and Orange County voters do not want to pay that debt. That sets them apart, considerably apart, from their immediate neighbors.

As a result of the June vote, they are paying at the gas pump, of course, like any other Californian. As such, they will be entitled to their share of the roads that never would be built if they were the only ones who had voted.


What is to be done, however, with locally generated road money? Build right up to the Orange County line and stop there? As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what is being done. Two lanes are being added to the Riverside Freeway from Old Magnolia Avenue in Riverside to the county line, 85% of the money coming from Riverside County’s Measure A and other local funds. That’s a fine solution! How does it help our commuters to bottleneck them the minute they leave the county?

Twice before--and who knows, perhaps again Tuesday--Orange County has told us that it doesn’t care.

Maybe it will someday. About a decade ago, Orange County housing prices (a $145,000 median in 1981) brought on a labor shortage, and business started to leave. But Orange County got its second wind. It found a work force that was willing to live farther and farther out--in Corona, in Riverside, in Moreno Valley--and spend more and more time on the road. Too many in Orange County obviously think it will never end, that commuters will be willing to put up with longer and longer drives, no matter what. Meanwhile, we’re still waiting for Orange County voters to do something to improve the highway system and make the drive easier for their own expatriates (people from Orange County buy a fourth of the new homes sold in Riverside County).

One of these days, the labor force may decide it’s had enough, and Orange County voters may be forced to look around them. For all of the aversion to paying for roads, Orange County is as dependent on the automobile as anywhere in this automobile-dependent region.


They had almost a clean start and still produced a disconnected, strung-out metropolitan area. They don’t have a center themselves, yet they have ambitions of becoming a downtown center for all of “modern” Los Angeles, which is to say downtown to non-L.A. L.A.

Los Angeles’ way of building Southern California was to reach out, usually in oversized and overpowering and overly clumsy ways. Orange County’s way of building Southern California is to pull back a gnarled, shriveled hand--afraid it might be asked to give a dime in return for the dollar it is taking.