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Commentary : Saving the County's 'Main Street'

July 06, 1986|D. S. TAPPAN JR. | D. S. Tappan Jr. is chairman and chief executive officer of Fluor Corp. and chairman of the Orange County Transportation Coalition

Orange County's lifeline--the Santa Ana Freeway--is in serious trouble.

This heavily traveled corridor, also known as Interstate 5, was cut through the county in the mid-1950s. California Department of Transportation engineers designed it then to last 25 years and to serve a county population of less than 1 million. Today, more than 1 million people work in the county, and well over 2 million live here.

County Supervisor Bruce Nestande, who serves on the California Transportation Commission, likes to call the Santa Ana Freeway "Orange County's Main Street." The description makes sense when you realize that 56% of the people in this county live within three miles of the freeway and that two-thirds of the jobs are found in the same central corridor.

But anyone who drives to work knows that this lifeline for commuting and commerce is slowly choking on excess automobile traffic. Public opinion surveys confirm the magnitude of a problem that defies an easy solution.

We know, too, that with the continued growth in the county will come more and more cars. Car-pooling or work-hour shifts provide only Band-Aid remedies. The inevitable necessity is to add more freeway lanes.

Help has been promised by the state. The California Transportation Commission and Caltrans have committed to widening and modernizing the Santa Ana Freeway. It's going to be a mammoth undertaking: To add the needed lanes will require reconstruction of about 40 bridges and overpasses and displacement of homes and businesses. The total estimated cost at the time of construction approaches $1 billion.

The first stage of construction calls for rebuilding to modern standards the notorious Santa Ana Freeway-Costa Mesa Freeway interchange. Complete widening of the freeway from Irvine to Buena Park could stretch into the next century if the people of the county don't push aggressively for a freeway improvement program.

State Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), representing the entire county legislative delegation, Brea Mayor Clarice Blamer, a member of the county transportation commission, and I, as chairman of the Orange County Transportation Coalition and a spokesman for private business, recently testified before the state transportation commission during a meeting in Los Angeles.

We asked the state to make good its commitment to fully pay for the initial stages of the Santa Ana Freeway project, including the Costa Mesa Freeway interchange. This partnership of legislators, local officials and private business continues a joint effort of many years' duration. Without it, it is doubtful that the freeway reconstruction project would even appear on the state freeway building schedule.

Improving the Santa Ana Freeway is the county's greatest transportation need. But we have other projects on the state's near-term agenda. They include adding an additional lane in each direction for the entire length of the San Diego Freeway, extending the Costa Mesa Freeway through the ditch in Costa Mesa, widening seven miles of Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach and Huntington Beach, and widening Laguna Canyon Road.

If the state can match its promises, the county will receive $488 million worth of freeway and state highway project work during the next five years. That will be a big improvement on the $106 million spent in the county the past five years. It will represent about 8% of statewide freeway and highway spending, equal to our county's population share.

Maintaining this commitment is a continuing battle. The state of California does not have adequate resources to meet everyone's traffic needs, not from its own revenues nor from the return of federal dollars taken locally at the gas pump.

The situation is not without hope, however. Our coalition of county interests is rallying behind an action plan.

Arguing for funding to rehabilitate the aging Santa Ana Freeway is only one facet. We also seek a Caltrans project team exclusively assigned to this one project, state legislation to allow private contracting of freeway work when the Caltrans staff is overloaded, and an amendment to federal law to reimburse any local funds put up to advance construction on the Santa Ana Freeway.

In concert with state and local officials, some of us in the business community have chosen to fight it out for funds and projects that are the county's just due. But we can't win this battle without reinforcements.

Every resident and commuter in the county should let our elected representatives know that the strength of our local economy and our vaunted quality of life are at stake.

We must improve circulation through the arteries of the county. In a word, we must administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation now , or our freeway lifelines will face cardiac arrest by the year 2000.

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