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LIFE ON WHEELS

OCTC Plan Is Running on Empty

March 30, 1989|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Remember that fictional drive into the future we took last week, courtesy of the Orange County Transportation Commission's new 20-year plan?

Well, don't unfasten your seat belt just yet. This week, we get the bill for our fanciful journey.

That network of widened freeways, "super-streets," transit routes and expanded rail service projected for the year 2009 may not be the Tomorrowland of monorails and flying cars that some of us dream about, but it still comes with a price tag of about $19.6 billion, according to the plan.

And if we add up all the transportation money we expect to have by then from existing sources--federal, state, county and city funds, gas-tax revenues, various assessments, bus and train fares, etc.--and if we scrape together every penny, we'll be able to come up with about $11.8 billion.

That will leave us about $7.8 billion short, or roughly 40%. To be more specific, we'll be $4.4 billion short for freeways, $2.7 billion short for local streets, $550 million short for urban transit and $77 million short for commuter rail.

So why are the folks at OCTC planning a transportation future we can't afford?

Well, frankly, the kind of future we can afford--based on existing funding sources (pay close attention to those words)--is a picture so horrifying none of us would want to look at it.

By 2009, the county's population is expected to grow about 23%, from 2.2 million to 2.8 million, even with growth management.

There will be some transportation improvements by then, in any case. We can safely assume that the construction on the Costa Mesa Freeway will be completed. The super-street project is already under way, and we can count on an extra car-pool lane here and there.

That's about it.

So basically, although the OCTC doesn't quite put it this way, with our existing funding sources we can expect the county's freeways and surface streets to resemble that old "Star Trek" episode about a planet so crowded that some of its inhabitants were willing to contract a fatal disease just so there would be more room for the others.

(Does that mean more people would consider car-pooling? Well, that may be getting a bit far-fetched.)

So what can we do to avoid this nightmare? No, it won't help to call up Citibank and get an emergency increase in our credit line, although that would make a dandy commercial, wouldn't it? ("I was stranded on the Santa Ana Freeway, already an hour late for an important meeting. And I knew the only way to get moving again would be to add three extra lanes. So I got on the car phone and called the Citibank 800 number. . . . "

("I checked our computer and saw that he was a good customer, so I authorized the increase over the phone. . . .")

No, we need new funding sources , the report recommends, such as a 1/2-cent sales tax added to the existing statewide 6% tax.

Orange County old-timers remember what happened the last time such a suggestion was made. That was back in 1984, and the proposal was for a 1-cent piggyback sales tax. The voters trounced the idea, many of them figuring that improving the freeways would only invite more growth.

So we turned it down and the county grew anyway, about 10% in fact, during that 5-year period. But the freeways did not grow, except for a 2-mile stretch of the Corona del Mar Freeway near John Wayne Airport.

In fact, that project and the extension of the Orange Freeway from the Pomona Freeway to the Santa Ana Freeway, are the only additions to the county's freeway system since 1966.

When you consider that we've been coasting for more than 20 years now, it's a wonder that traffic moves as well here as it does.

Although Orange County's gross product ranks 10th among all the nation's metropolitan areas--larger than that of 24 of the 50 states--we traditionally haven't spent much of our wealth on transportation, unless you want to count all those BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes clogging the highways.

"In the past 20 years, Californians in general, and Orange County residents in particular, have not invested in transportation," the OCTC report states. "In terms of per capita transportation expenditures, California ranks 50th among all states. In terms of California counties, Orange County rates 43 out of 58 counties in terms of per capita investments.

"In terms of transportation taxes, 44 states have higher gasoline taxes than California. And in terms of California counties, 11 counties have adopted local transportation sales tax measures to deal with growing local traffic congestion problems," the report states. In our region, those counties include Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego.

At this point, we could spend some time arguing over whose fault it is that Orange County fell so far behind, but that isn't going to solve the problem.

Instead, let's concentrate on what we're going to do now.

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