We're Happy but Not Optimistic

Mark Baldassare is research director at the Public Policy Institute of California in San Francisco and founder and director of the Orange County Annual Survey at UCI. The 2002 PPIC Special Survey on Orange County is available at www.ppic.org.

Perceptions of Orange County's quality of life have held up remarkably well over the last two decades. Even today, with the addition of 1 million residents since the first Orange County Annual Survey in 1982, residents still give uniformly high ratings to the basic features of local life, including housing, neighborhoods, schools, roads, parks and public safety. Nine in 10 residents say they're satisfied with the quality of life in the region, surpassing satisfaction levels among Angelenos, Bay Area residents and Californians as a whole.

Why are Orange County residents so high on life here?

For one thing, the local economy is outperforming the state's and the nation's. Even in these gloomy times, most residents believe the Orange County economy is in excellent or good shape. Consumer confidence is higher locally than in the nation. Indeed, one of the bright spots in the county's economic picture -- rising home values -- helped homeowners offset the dampening effects of the stock market and boosted consumer spending.

Compared with the rest of the state, fewer local residents think their region is in an economic recession.

The relatively upbeat mood here is validated by these recent job statistics: Orange County's unemployment rate was less than 4% in November, compared with a 6% joblessness rate across the state.

Yet when residents are asked to peer into their county's future, the mood is more subdued: 1 in 3 believes it will be a worse place to live in the future, 1 in 3 thinks it will remain the same, and only 1 in 3 expects it to be a better place.What's the reason for this unease about the county's prospects?

Residents tell us there are two county issues that worry them the most today: population growth and traffic congestion. Orange County's population projections indicate that those concerns are on target. According to the demographic unit at Cal State Fullerton, Orange County is expected to add half a million residents and half a million jobs by 2025.

While in recent years the county has made solid progress in adding to its surface transportation system -- as evidenced by the fact that residents in Orange County rate traffic conditions more positively than residents in other coastal regions such as Los Angeles and the Bay Area -- the volume of people and the number of commuters projected in the future will place tremendous strains on already crowded freeways, busy streets and thoroughfares.

Most residents understand the big role that the surface transportation system has played in the county's recent success: 3 in 4 say the condition of roads and infrastructure is "very important" to the quality of life and economic vitality of the region. While there is overwhelming satisfaction with the ways that current funds are used for local transportation projects -- 7 in 10 voters are satisfied with the way the Measure M funds are being spent -- there is little consensus about the next phase of planning.

Reflecting the fact that 8 in 10 residents drive alone to work each day -- the same proportion as 20 years ago in Orange County -- residents are most apt to want funds for more roadways.

However, recognizing that growth, higher density and social diversity are reshaping the local landscape, nearly as many residents think the priority should be light-rail systems, public buses and carpool lanes.

Coincidentally, tough decisions about the proper mix of transportation projects in Orange County come at a time when there are doubts about funding sources.

Congress is set to reauthorize transportation funding for the 50 states in 2003, a decision that will have huge implications for local projects, especially in the wake of California's severe budget deficit.

Californians will vote on a state ballot measure in 2004 that would earmark a portion of the state general fund for local transportation projects. And in the not-too-distant future, Orange County voters may be asked to extend their local transportation sales tax, which ends in 2011.

Today, public support for extending Measure M is strong but falls short of the two-thirds threshold required by state law.

Providing the freeways, roads, buses and trains needed for an Orange County with 3.5 million people and 2 million jobs will be a challenge, as is the crucial task of determining how to pay for these projects. For too long, locally elected officials and the public have been preoccupied with other countywide issues -- such as the county government bankruptcy and the contentious north-south battle over a commercial airport at the former El Toro Marine base.

The time is now for broad and inclusive discussion and full focus on the roads and infrastructure projects that will be needed to ensure that the good times keep rolling in Orange County for the next 20 years.

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