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County’s Annual Survey Encouraging : * It Shows a Commitment to Make Things Work

From afar, Orange County is easily stereotyped as a kitschy mix of right-wing extremists, glamorous Newport Beach jet-setters and freeway cowboys, with a heavy dose of back-yard barbecuers.

But as the Orange County Annual Survey revealed last week, people here are much more complex, and much more mainstream, than that. They are worried not just about preserving their suburban lifestyle but about their own impact on the environment. They hate traffic congestion and seem more willing than before to pay for mass transit to relieve it. They are concerned about growth but are just as worried about providing housing for young families who hope to buy their first homes.

In short, the ninth annual survey’s latest snapshot reveals that Orange County’s reputation for provincialism and extreme politics does not adequately reflect the maturity that residents are in fact showing in 1990. These new attitudes are important because they can empower the people who live here to deal with today’s complicated problems.

For one thing, the pessimism so dominant in previous surveys has leveled off, indicating residents aren’t indulging in doom and gloom or an attitude of resignation about problems. Yes, people seem frightened about the current downturn in the economy, but there is an underlying commitment to make things work.

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Those are all good signs. It is important that local leaders build on that sentiment to help Orange County confront the very tough economic times that appear to be ahead.

Among other things, the survey found that the environment has evolved into one of the county’s major concerns, ranking with crime, taxes and jobs. Residents have been conserving water and recycling trash, especially in the past year, many for the first time ever.

The tougher issue of reducing gasoline consumption, however, still has not yet been seriously confronted, the survey indicated. The same huge percentage of residents--about 80%--prefer commuting solo to any other means of transportation. They like the idea of high-speed trains or other methods of public transit, but, for now at least, they prefer to leave the alternatives to others.

But transportation officials should take note that “improving public transportation” ranked almost as high as “widening existing freeways” as a funding priority--a marked change from six years ago. There is a strong interest in rapid rail, including monorails, as a way to ease traffic. And people are much more willing to entertain the idea of car pools or public transit when they are confronted with higher parking fees and other increased costs of driving. That means that there is a unique opportunity to build political support for mass transit and car-pooling.

One other significant survey finding is that Orange County residents are very suspicious of regional government as a means of addressing problems. Keep in mind that such approaches have worked well elsewhere, and may become important in the years ahead.

The Orange County Annual Survey was conducted by UC Irvine social ecology professor Mark Baldassare and researcher Cheryl Katz, and sponsored by public agencies, private foundations and corporations, including The Times Orange County edition. Combined with November’s surprising election results--in which a countywide half-cent sales tax for transportation and two important local environmental measures were approved--the survey results indicate that Orange County is growing up.


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