Orange County transportation officials dangled a carrot stick to weary commuters last week by unveiling a plan to add to the county's rail system eight round-trips a day to Los Angeles and stops at four additional stations. The catch: The electorate must approve a half-cent sales tax for transportation that, among other things, would provide county matching funds for state bond money approved by voters in June.
The measure that would institute the sales tax increase in Orange County--the only urban county in the state that hasn't adopted such a tax for transportation--is Measure M on the Nov. 6 ballot. But passage will be a battle. A recent Times poll suggested that voters are divided about evenly.
It doesn't help that everyone is jittery about the Middle East crisis, with its threat of skyrocketing oil prices. It makes any new tax seem all the more scary. Unless voters can be convinced that Measure M is the key not only to rail but to many other essential transportation projects, it could go the way of similar measures voted down in the past.
But Orange County's clogged transportation network demands attention and can't wait. Even now, the morning and evening commutes are terrible. And the long-range outlook is even more discouraging. In just a few years, when the widening of the Santa Ana Freeway gets fully under way, the current traffic situation will look like the good old days. Given the slow rate of funding expected for the $1.6-billion freeway widening between Irvine and Los Angeles, the project could take 15 to 20 years. Alternatives to jammed freeways will be needed even more.
Orange County is long overdue for the kind of rail service described last week in the plan presented by the Orange County Transportation Commission. There would be a train every 20 minutes during peak hours, with new stops added at Mission Viejo, Tustin, Orange and Buena Park.
There is now just one commuter train carrying up to 370 passengers daily, with stops at San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Irvine, Santa Ana, Anaheim and Fullerton. There also are eight regular Amtrak trains from San Diego to Los Angeles with stops in Orange County.
Round-trip fares for the new service would be comparable to Amtrak's. A round-trip ticket between San Juan Capistrano and Los Angeles now costs $20. With parking charges escalating in downtown areas, commuting by train could even prove cost effective in coming years.
Providing the full service described by OCTC, however, will be costly. Operating costs are estimated at $8.5 million a year--only part of which would be made up in fares. There should also be shuttle or bus routes to feed into the stations from cities.
The $72.4 million needed to provide the eight new trains could come from Propositions 108 and 116, state rail bonds approved by voters in June. That's only if Orange County provides its matching share with the half-cent sales tax. It's one more reason to approve Measure M.