SANTA ANA — Over the past five years, Orange County voters have cooled to the idea of building a rail system as a transportation alternative and now favor widening or maintaining existing roads and freeways instead, according to a new transit poll.
The poll released Monday showed 17.3% of respondents listing a rail system as "most important" to them, down sharply from 42% who felt that way in a 1991 poll.
However, 10.7% in the latest poll did favor improving MetroLink service and 8.3% want improved bus service. These latter categories were not included in the earlier survey.
The new poll, conducted in July for the Orange County Transportation Authority, interviewed 800 "very high-propensity voters" throughout the county. However, the pollsters acknowledged that the respondents were not representative of Orange County's population and are not public transportation users.
About 60% of those polled were 50 years or older, and 200 were drawn from the city of Irvine alone. In addition, 83% are homeowners, 63% of whom have lived in the county 20 years or more. Two-thirds of the respondents said that nobody in their households has ridden a bus in the past year.
"This is not a group that regularly uses public transit," said an OCTA report of the poll respondents.
An OCTA official said the people polled were chosen because they are likely voters, and added that the 1991 poll relied on the same demographics.
The current survey proves that "people are pleased with the freeway widening and road projects," OCTA spokesman John Standiford said. "They like what they're seeing and want it to continue."
In the new poll, 59.4% of the respondents said they favored freeway widening and road maintenance over a new rail project, compared with 54% in 1991 who wanted officials to concentrate on road and freeway projects.
About seven of every 10 voters, according to the poll, oppose shifting responsibility for spending Measure M funds to the Board of Supervisors. Revenue generated by Measure M, a half-cent transportation tax approved by county voters in 1990, is budgeted by the OCTA.
However, voters also oppose by an almost equal margin, 66%, combining all country transportation functions--John Wayne Airport, toll roads, bus service and spending Measure M funds--under one board of directors. In recent years, OCTA officials have floated proposals to transfer jurisdiction of the airport and tollway groups to the agency.
Generally, the poll gave the OCTA high marks--52.7% rated the agency as doing a very good or good job--and listed immigration as the biggest problem facing Orange County today, while traffic ranked fifth out of seven categories.
According to a staff report, the poll was commissioned to gauge the public's "perceptions" of the transportation agency. While the poll results show public approval of OCTA's spending priorities on current projects, respondents also expressed "a cautious response" to proposals for future construction and services, the report said.
At Monday's OCTA board meeting, the agency also released a report card on the eight new community bus routes initiated last October. The routes, called Runabouts, focus on community transportation needs in several south and central county cities.
According to an agency report, the eight routes transported 260,000 passengers in the first 10 months.
Officials said two routes, 175 in Irvine and 177 in Laguna Hills and Lake Forest, have exceeded expectations. Route 158, which served Orange and Santa Ana commuters along La Veta and Chapman avenues, was canceled in June due to low ridership.
Four other routes--164 in Westminster, 388 in Laguna Hills, 394 in south Mission Viejo and 397 in San Clemente--are just below projected levels in ridership. Route 391, which serves Saddleback College, is well below expectations, averaging two boardings per hour, but is still in service. The accepted performance level is 10 boardings per hour while the routes are being serviced.