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1 Year Later, Measure M’s Fate Unclear : Transportation: Several projects are under way, but tax receipts are down and legal challenges remain.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a few days, it will be 1-year-old--and those first toddling steps have been a bit of a struggle.

Wednesday marks the first birthday for Orange County’s transportation financing initiative--the much-ballyhooed and battle-scarred Measure M.

Since the half-cent sales tax hike was approved by voters in November, 1990, work has begun on a slate of new projects mandated by Measure M, most notably new car-pool lanes on the Orange Freeway and construction of a wider and faster Beach Boulevard.

Even more projects are in the works, among them the purchase of new commuter trains, a long-awaited upgrade of the tangled El Toro Y and construction of car-pool lanes along Interstate 5 in South County.

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But the shopping-spree enthusiasm of the county’s transportation authorities is shadowed by a cumulus of caution.

The dogged nationwide recession has pushed Measure M’s tax receipts far below expectations. During the summer, the county collected 17% less than anticipated from Measure M, which has been projected to generate more than $3 billion during the next two decades.

In addition, the year has been dotted with court hearings on a lawsuit launched by opponents of the measure, among them the Libertarian Central Committee of Orange County and Drivers for Highway Safety, a small group opposed to measure-funded car-pool lanes and rail projects. As yet, the legal tussle remains unsettled, and it now sits in the hands of the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana.

To kick Measure M into gear, transportation authorities were forced early this year to borrow against funds already in hand because Wall Street won’t open its purse strings until the litigation is settled. With that money now drying up and no more in the offing until the legal battle is decided, several projects planned for next year are threatened by delays.

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As the lawsuit drags on, once-cocky transportation authorities are sounding more subdued.

“When they first filed that lawsuit, I said they had about as much chance to win as I have to play third base for the Angels,” said Stanley Oftelie, the Orange County Transportation Authority’s executive director. “I’m still real confident, but I’m going to start taking a lot of ground balls this winter just in case.”

Despite the ebbing optimism, Oftelie and many other OCTA officials remain pleased with the progress made to push ahead with highway and rail projects during Year 1 of Measure M.

While about a half-dozen counties in Southern California have passed similar transportation taxes, only Orange County has gotten a road or rail project under construction during the first year, officials boast.

The noteworthy accomplishment was possible because transportation officials took a calculated gamble, getting projects engineered and environmentally cleared in advance so they were ready to roll soon after Measure M was approved.

In addition, several of the projects came in significantly under budget, meaning Measure M money can be spread to more projects than originally anticipated.

The Orange Freeway car-pool lanes, for instance, cost $21 million instead of the $40 million expected, and purchase of the Pacific Electric “Red Car” trolley right of way through North County for a future light-rail line came in at $16 million, well under the $50 million budgeted.

“If I was doing a report card for the first year, I’d give us a B+,” Oftelie said. “We’ve done better than any other California county has ever done with one of these. It’s good, but not good enough. The lawsuit has held us up, so I think we can do better.”

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Not all OCTA officials are so sanguine. Dana Reed, a member of the Transportation Authority board and a prime booster of last year’s successful Measure M campaign, suggests that the first year of life with Measure M has been “a major disappointment, a major setback.”

“I think we’ve had a fairly good year, but not because of Measure M,” Reed said. “Measure M hasn’t happened yet. It hasn’t done anything yet. We’ve been collecting the money, but unfortunately it’s far less than we thought and it’s just sitting in an account collecting interest because we can’t spend it.”

Although attorneys who filed the lawsuit challenging Measure M failed to get a court order blocking collection of the sales tax, such litigation spooks financiers who loan the huge sums needed to build a highway or rail project.

Transportation officials were depending on those loans. Their strategy was not unlike that of a home buyer: Get a loan to buy what you need now, then retire the debt gradually over the years. In their case, the loans wouldn’t be paid off with the weekly paycheck, but rather revenue gleaned over the years from Measure M.

Opponents of the measure were troubled by the whole affair, in particular the fact the tax measure received only a simple majority of votes. They argue that it should have required a two-thirds vote under Proposition 13, the state’s 1978 property tax reform initiative.

So far, Measure M has stood up in a trio of court hearings. As both sides await the appellate court’s ruling, which could come in the next few months, the attorneys are also anxiously watching a San Diego County case that could affect the Measure M case.

That case, which revolves around challenges to a sales-tax hike passed by a simple majority in San Diego to help fund law enforcement, is now before the state Supreme Court. The state Supreme Court has had the matter under consideration for months, and its decision looms as an important test of the ability of local governments to raise taxes by referendum.

Oftelie said even a delay of a few more months will hurt transportation improvements, in particular the purchase of land to widen the Santa Ana Freeway north into Anaheim.

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“After the first of the year, we start running into problems with funding for local streets and roads, keeping the commuter rail improvements on track, projects to synchronize traffic signals, all of it simply because we won’t have the money,” Oftelie said.

What authorities are reluctant to even think about is the possibility of life without Measure M. If opponents ultimately prevail in the lawsuit, the county would be hard-pressed to garner enough cash to undertake many projects beyond those already under construction.

“If M disappears, we wouldn’t have commuter rail, we wouldn’t have the I-5 widening in Anaheim, we wouldn’t have the new El Toro Y, we wouldn’t have car-pool lanes on the 91 (Riverside) Freeway,” Reed said. “And that’s just the start. We wouldn’t have ‘super-streets,’ we wouldn’t have the freeze on bus fares for seniors and the handicapped. And don’t forget, 25% goes back to the cities. That’s a substantial amount of money to improve local streets and roads.

“The bottom line is we’d be wallowing in the same traffic that we’ve been wallowing in for the past few years. The sun will still come up if we don’t have Measure M, but if this thing comes to a grinding halt, these projects aren’t going to be built.”

One Year of M

Despite a lawsuit and the dogged nationwide recession, several projects planned under Measure M were begun in the year since the county’s $3.1-billion transportation improvement program was approved by voters. Several others are in the works and could start next year if the measure survives legal challenges.

* Orange Freeway: Car-pool lane in each direction. $21 million. Expected to be completed in spring, 1992, a year ahead of schedule.

* Beach Boulevard Super-Street: Under construction, new lane in each direction, improved signal synchronization between Lincoln Avenue in Anaheim and the San Diego Freeway. $7.3-million project.

* Pacific Electric right of way: Stretch of abandoned rail line in North County bought for $16 million for future light-rail line.

* Santa Ana Freeway right of way: If lawsuit is defeated and agency begins borrowing against taxes collected under Measure M, authorities will rush to buy land for widening from the Garden Grove Freeway north to the Riverside Freeway. Expected cost: $550 million.

* Costa Mesa Freeway: Design to begin soon to extend widening work north to Garden Grove Freeway.

* El Toro Y: Confluence of San Diego and Santa Ana freeways due for $151 million in improvements, beginning late 1993 or early 1994.

* South County car-pool lanes: Design to begin soon to add a car-pool lane in each direction on Interstate 5 south of the El Toro Y. Construction expected to begin in the mid-1990s.

Source: Orange County Transportation Authority

1991 Orange County Elections

Tuesday is Election Day. A city election will be held in Irvine with three ballot measures, and school board candidates will face off in areas served by the Garden Grove, Irvine, Newport-Mesa, Orange and Santa Ana unified school districts.

* In Irvine, voters will decide on three measures. Measure A would change the way that certain open seats on the City Council are filled; Measure B asks Irvine voters whether the Irvine Co. should be allowed to proceed with its 3,850-home Westpark II, or Village 38, project that the City Council approved last December; Measure C asks voters whether the city’s 3-year-old open-space agreement with the Irvine Co. should be implemented.

* In the Garden Grove Unified School District, which also covers parts of Santa Ana, Westminster and Fountain Valley, voters will choose from five candidates to fill three seats.

* In Irvine Unified, eight candidates are vying for three school board seats.

* In Newport-Mesa Unified, which covers Newport Beach and Costa Mesa, voters will elect one candidate in Trustee Area 1 and one in Trustee Area 3, with two candidates running in each area.

* In Orange Unified, which also covers Villa Park and parts of Anaheim, Santa Ana, Silverado Canyon and Garden Grove, four candidates are competing for a seat in Trustee Area 2 and two are vying for a spot in Trustee Area 6.

* In Santa Ana Unified, voters will choose from five candidates to fill three seats.

Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. For information about polling places, call the registrar of voters office at (714) 567-7600.


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