Freeways, Coroner Top O.C.'s State Budget Stake

TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than $207 million worth of new carpool lanes and $10 million for a death investigation training center were among those big-ticket Orange County items at stake in an evolving state budget Friday.

After Senate approval of a $100-billion budget on Thursday, lobbyists and municipal officials throughout Orange County scrambled Friday to ensure that their pet projects would win the necessary approval in the Assembly and on the governor's desk.

Besides the $240 million in allocations for the Orange County Transportation Authority, $26 million in county projects were at stake. These items include $10 million for the training center at the Orange County coroner's office, $2 million for city police facility upgrades in Garden Grove, $1.24 million for a county water quality lab and $600,000 for improvements to an animal hospital at the Orange County Wildlife Center.

On Friday, city and county officials said Orange County had done relatively well in the legislative budgeting process, but the battle was far from over. "It's still too early to start counting our dollars," said Rob Richardson, a county government spokesman.

Budget forecasters throughout the state were thrown into confusion Friday night, when Assembly Republicans failed to approve the spending plan. Although many had expected the budget to be approved by both houses by this weekend, the Assembly will now start fresh on the matter Monday.

If the budget is eventually approved without major modifications, the county's biggest recipient of funds would be the Transit Authority. Most of the $240 million going to OCTA would be used to build carpool lanes on the Garden Grove Freeway between the San Diego and Costa Mesa freeways. The work would add 23 miles of carpool lanes to the existing 160 miles in the county.

Carpool lanes have generated a great deal of controversy in the county, with critics saying they are seldom used and a waste of money. OCTA officials disagree.

"This project is actually a great thing for the county," said Bill Hodge, OCTA's director of external affairs. "I actually think carpool lanes in Orange County are the most heavily used in the country."

Other OCTA projects that await funding include $28 million to build railroad overpasses along the Orangethorpe Corridor in Fullerton and $5 million for an environmental impact report on the planned widening of the Orange Freeway.

OCTA officials said those projects approved so far were essentially picked by the governor. Hodge said OCTA was asked early this year to submit a list of priority projects, and selections were made from that list.

Among the largest of the county's non-transportation budget items is the plan to expand the coroner's office in Santa Ana, adding a statewide training facility for medical examiners, social workers and homicide investigators from throughout the state.

Other large budget items include $1 million each to construct a community center in La Palma and a senior center in Laguna Beach.

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