It was 7:30 on a Monday morning.
Electrical contractor Steve Milliken was stopped on a metered ramp, waiting to get on the southbound San Diego Freeway in Seal Beach.
"I usually hit a wall of cars at Beach Boulevard," said Milliken, who was driving to a construction site in Irvine. "But the traffic is still worse in L.A."
Milliken's view is widespread among Orange County residents, according to public opinion surveys. But it is no longer accurate.
By some standards, Orange County's average home-to-work commute is now worse than L.A.'s., in part because county residents spend a higher percentage of their commuting time in traffic delays than do their neighbors to the north.
Moreover, contrasted with Los Angeles County, a higher percentage of Orange County's freeways and arterial streets are congested.
Indeed, some transportation experts say Orange County traffic already ranks with the worst in the United States.
Those conclusions by a regional planning agency and federal officials were so startling that, until recently, even Keith McKean, Caltrans' district director in Orange County, did not think they were true.
"You always think of a drive within the Los Angeles area as being the absolute worst. . . . But in Orange County there are fewer miles of freeway and fewer arterials available, so there aren't as many choices," McKean said.
As early as 1984, Orange County residents spent an average of 11.5% of their commuting time driving at reduced speeds because of congestion, contrasted with 10.9% for Los Angeles County residents, according to a study by the Southern California Assn. of Governments, a six-county regional planning agency. It is a small difference, but a significant one, given the greater number of freeway miles and population of Los Angeles County, experts say.
What's more, Orange County's ratio of freeway miles to people and cars is among the worst in the nation, despite Southern California's reputation as the freeway capital of the world. Among the 20 fastest-growing areas of the United States, only two have had higher growth rates in the number of vehicles driving to work: Tampa-St. Petersburg and Phoenix.
And traffic in Orange County is getting worse, according to figures compiled by the agency. Indicators that were used to reach that conclusion are the hours of traffic delays, the number of highway miles in which speeds are reduced by congestion and the increasing cost of that congestion on businesses and individuals over the last several years.
One reason traffic will get worse is that the $1-billion planned widening of the Santa Ana Freeway will leave little money during the next few years for major highway projects other than the three planned tollways in southern Orange County. Even the tollways will not be fully operational for 5 to 10 years, and the Santa Ana Freeway widening may not be completed for 10 to 15 years.
Traditional traffic solutions, including building new freeways or double-decking existing routes, are expensive. Each mile of freeway construction costs about $10 million, and the funding prospects for new highways other than the three planned tollways in southern Orange County are dismal. In addition, Caltrans officials believe that opposition from homeowners and environmentalists most likely would preclude such a freeway construction boom anywhere in Southern Calilfornia.
If current trends continue and nothing is done about congestion, by 2010 a rush-hour commute that now takes 1 hour will take more than 3 hours, according to SCAG.
Although Orange County has fewer people than Los Angeles County, its smaller highway system is being asked to handle a higher rate of growth in jobs and, hence, job-related traffic, according to transportation experts.
Further, Orange County already leads the state in the number of registered vehicles per freeway mile--12,612 compared to Los Angeles County's 10,941.
"Some areas of Los Angeles are such intense (heavily congested) hot spots that they are hotter than those in Orange County," said Stanley T. Oftelie, executive director of the Orange County Transportation Commission.
"But there are more hot spots in Orange County. In L.A., you have the Ventura Freeway interchange with I-405 and intersections along the Wilshire Corridor that have higher traffic volumes than what we have locally, but it's awful here everywhere."
Alan E. Pisarski, a Washington-based transportation adviser to the Reagan Administration and the National Academy of Sciences, said Orange County's traffic is "certainly among the worst in the country. . . . You've got freeway problems and local street problems that just won't quit."
Pisarski and other urban planning experts say Orange County's traffic problems stem from tremendous growth in jobs here and the inability of transportation facilities and housing opportunities to keep pace.