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OCTA Fears Gov.’s Plan Is Competition

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Times Staff Writer

Orange County voters may face two possibly competing measures this year to ease traffic congestion: a statewide bond issue proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the county’s own sales tax extension.

“The governor’s bond package will cause us challenges, because it competes with our measure,” said county Supervisor Lou Correa. “But we’re hoping that at the end of the day, voters will work with us and understand that Measure M extension is for Orange County residents.”

Measure M is a half-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax approved by voters in 1990. County officials are discussing whether to ask voters in November to extend the tax through 2041. They estimate it will raise an additional $12 billion for local transportation needs.

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Details of Schwarzenegger’s $222-billion proposed bond issue for transportation projects, port modernization, new schools, county jails and improved state levees have not been spelled out, but county officials said it includes at least $320 million for improvements on the Riverside Freeway, the major freeway connecting Orange and Riverside counties. The proposal now goes to the state Legislature, and no decision has been made on when it would go to voters.

Meanwhile, the county is moving ahead with plans to put its measure on the November ballot. On Monday, the Orange County Transportation Authority hired a public relations firm to increase public awareness of the sales tax initiative.

Townsend, Raimundo, Besler & Usher, a Sacramento firm already under contract by OCTA, was hired for $1.5 million to help educate county residents about projects completed thanks to Measure M. They include freeway improvements and added Metrolink service.

Renewal of the sales tax, which ends in 2011, will probably qualify for the November ballot.

“It’s a long way away, and people have to be convinced they’re getting their money’s worth,” said Supervisor Chris Norby, who sits on the authority’s board of directors.

“If we were to vote on it right now, its success is probably 50-50.”

But supervisors did not know Monday whether the governor’s bond measure would go on the ballot in June or in November, when it might compete with the sales tax extension.

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Supervisor Tom Wilson said the challenge would be getting the word out that projects such as the widening of the Riverside Freeway and increased Metrolink service were a direct result of Measure M.

Correa said the transportation authority’s board of directors had expressed concern that the governor’s bond package might cloud Measure M’s chances for renewal.

Authority chairman Bill Campbell, who is also a county supervisor, thinks Measure M will get on the November ballot but that passage will be close.

Measure M passed with a majority vote on its third try. But a subsequent court decision now requires such measures to be passed by at least two-thirds of the voters.

If the initiative is approved by OCTA sometime in July, it will be sent to the supervisors, who will vote on whether to put it on the ballot. All five supervisors are on the authority’s 18-member board.

The contract for Townsend, Raimundo, Besler & Usher is in addition to an existing $390,000 contract with the firm for providing communications and program organization on Measure M, OCTA officials said.

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The firm is known around the state for helping counties develop plans and public outreach for similar transportation measures, said Monte Ward, OCTA’s special projects director.

The new contract is for a direct-mail informational campaign, Ward said.

The firm has had a relationship with OCTA since 1990, when it first helped the measure win voter approval, he said.

A poll released last summer showed more than two-thirds of voters supporting renewal of the sales tax. But the poll followed two surveys indicating that support for Measure M was short of a two-thirds majority.

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