Last year's Orange County Annual Survey, for the first time since it began in 1982, reported that a majority of residents think the county will become a worse, not a better place to live in the future. This year's survey, released Thursday, shows that even more people now feel that way.
The frustration and growing pessimism that residents have expressed is understandable. Although unemployment in the county may be lower and personal income higher than the national average, there are disappointing differences between the life styles residents want and what they have been getting--or more precisely, not getting--in recent years.
Residents want lighter, free-flowing traffic and quicker commutes. Instead, they have been getting slow, bumper-to-bumper traffic congestion.
Residents want to live in the American Dream--a single-family detached home in a small community. At least eight out of every 10 people polled stated their preference for that. The reality is that less than half the people polled (49%) live in that kind of home. Mortgage payments shot up 10% in the past year, pricing more people out of the home-buying market and into apartments they don't want to live in, widening even further the unhappy gap between what they want and what they must settle for.
The disappointment, and the gloomy outlook for the future, show up in the survey replies in which, for the first time in the annual poll by UC Irvine professor Mark Baldassare and Cheryl Katz, a majority of residents (51%) say they favor building new freeways. But the deep-seated feeling of hopelessness in finding ways to ease traffic congestion is woefully evident in the replies of 58% of the respondents who believe that no matter what is done, "traffic will only get worse since there are no solutions to today's transportation problems."
Residents showed the same befuddlement in their attitudes toward growth. They don't want to halt it, but nearly four out of every five people polled would support ballot initiatives to slow growth and link it to traffic reduction.
The reaction, however, is based more on feelings and frustration than on fact. One part of the 10th Annual Chapman College Economic Forecast compiled by James Doti, dean of Chapman's school of business, released Thursday, estimates that the passage of slow-growth initiatives could cost the county 9,000 jobs in the first year. The report also notes that the county's labor pool is drying up because high housing costs are forcing workers to live elsewhere.
With a weakened labor pool, higher unemployment and higher housing costs because fewer homes would be built, the passage of the proposed initiatives could have an adverse effect on the county's economic health, not only discouraging new businesses from locating here but also forcing existing ones to consider moving.
There will be no sure-fire solutions for the increasing traffic congestion and rising home prices in the new year. But all is not as bleak or hopeless as many people feel. Some local governing bodies are already tying their approval of new development to traffic-improvement projects, as they should. Other significant steps can be taken. Despite doubts, staggered work times and increased car pooling could help reduce congestion. They have in the past. The more efficient use of the freeways by adding well-designed transit ways for buses and van pools could help, too.
What's needed now is strong leadership--from both the public and private sectors--to help deal with the hopelessness the annual survey uncovered.