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Commentary : Traffic Systems Changes Coming

April 06, 1986|JAMES P. REICHERT | James P. Reichert is general manager of Orange County Transit District.

A great deal of fanfare greeted the recent opening of the newest link of the San Diego Trolley. More will surely follow when, around the state, new light-rail lines appear in Santa Clara County, Sacramento, in Los Angeles County between Long Beach and downtown, and along the median of the soon-to-open Century Freeway. With such progressive transportation projects appearing in our neighboring counties, what can we expect here?

The answer, happily, is quite a bit. When Orange County voters turned down a 1-cent sales tax increase initiative some 20 months ago that would have partially funded a 38-mile light-rail system, the defeat sent a clear message to local transportation planners: Do more with what you already have. In other words, maximize the capacity of the existing freeways, roads and public transit buses before building any new systems. The defeat of the sales tax initiative was also an indication of an increasing sentiment in the county to slow down new growth. But development will continue to occur, albeit perhaps a bit more slowly, and rising housing costs will force a growing number of people to commute into Orange County from the Riverside/San Bernardino area. Hence, more traffic.

At the Orange County Transit District, we are working with the county Transportation Commission to implement a plan that will improve the county's mobility while tracking its growth patterns. The initial elements of this plan call for creating commuter lanes--special lanes for car pools, van pools and buses within the existing freeway system. Next year the San Diego Freeway will have an additional two lanes that could be devoted to car pools and van pools, similar to the commuter lanes currently operating on the Costa Mesa Freeway. Over the next several years, the Santa Ana Freeway will then be widened by four lanes with two of the additional lanes likely being commuter lanes.

Next, if community support and continued employment growth warrants it, a network of transitways will be built within the Orange, Santa Ana and Costa Mesa freeways. These exclusive guideways would be largely built within existing freeway rights of way and would be available for car pools, van pools and buses. The most attractive feature of transitways, when compared to commuter lanes, is that they utilize their own on/off ramps, separate from normal freeway traffic, together with a system of on-line stations and park-and-ride lots.

Transitways are quite comparable to light rail in several ways while offering additional advantages. Although it is more expensive to operate buses than light-rail trains, because of the high proportion of drivers to passengers, more than half of the vehicles using commuter lanes and transitways will be car pools and van pools, which need less public subsidy.

In addition, transitways can provide capacities comparable to many light-rail systems. The El Monte Busway in Los Angeles County, an 11-mile project, carries about twice as many people as the 16-mile San Diego Trolley, when car pools are included. Other advantages of transitways include the ability to construct them incrementally as funds become available and build them within freeway rights of way to reduce environmental impacts.

As part of our long-range transitway studies, we are looking at a possible future connection of transitways with a central county light-rail line, thereby linking the major employment and activity centers in the county.

Light-rail systems do offer some significant advantages, including the ability to penetrate directly major employment areas, while buses and car pools must leave the transitway and travel over congested arterial streets, thus taking more time to reach destinations. Both transitways and light rail can carry more people for less money than heavy rail systems like Bay Area Rapid Transit in San Francisco, and are well-suited to Orange County's lower densities.

With both highway and transit construction funds in very short supply, building commuter lanes and transitways to help meet our growing traffic problems is a cost-effective solution for Orange County. Commuter lanes and transitways, however, are only half of the solution. The other half is to fill them with car pools, van pools and, where appropriate, express buses. This is the responsibility of the district's Commuter Network program, begun about two years ago.

At present, we work with more than 350 employers in the county, assisting them in planning their ride-sharing program, which could include car-pool matchlists, setting up van pools, distributing bus information, setting flexitime, providing preferential parking for poolers, selling transit bus passes or setting up contests and promotions.

There are lots of good examples of company ride-sharing and flexitime programs in operation today in Orange County. The Auto Club, for example, has 45% of its employees coming to work in car pools and van pools. The ride-sharing program at Hughes Aircraft in Irvine saved the company the cost of building a $3.5-million parking structure. And the Fluor Corp., McDonnell Douglas and Rockwell all have outstanding programs, as do a large number of small- to medium-sized employers.

A system of transitways and commuter lanes is an alternative, which when combined with a light rail project, can help reduce traffic congestion. Transportation planners are making progress and will explore all alternatives to increase mobility for Orange County residents.

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