The merger several years ago of the Orange County Transportation District and the county Transportation Commission created a superagency responsible for nearly all forms of transportation in Orange County.
The merger meant an empire for the first executive director of OCTA, Stan Oftelie. A skilled political operator, Oftelie last week left OCTA to become head of the Orange County Business Council. The council also is the result of a merger, last year's grouping of several business organizations. Oftelie's new employer can benefit from his knowledge of the county's levers of power, and his selection is an intriguing choice.
A certain early test will be how Oftelie handles the controversy over a proposed airport at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. The enthusiasm for a big airport offered by some in the county's business community has not been matched by entirely convincing arguments that this particular base reuse option is really what the strengthening local economy needs. Also, the quality of life concern raised by a big airport is a factor in attracting and retaining businesses and their employees.
As for OCTA, Oftelie's assistant was appointed interim director of the agency last week. A permanent successor will need his ability to make friends of elected officials and to run a massive agency with an annual budget of more than $600 million. There will be no room for on-the-job training.
OCTA has had to fend off raids on its budget and periodic demands that it forget mass transit, concentrating instead on more pavement for cars. The attacks on buses and trains, loud though they may be, are not persuasive. Train traffic in Orange County has grown impressively in recent years, demonstrating that many people are happy to forgo the stress and wasted time caused by clogged roads if there is an alternative. Amtrak and Metrolink trains are a boon to Orange County.
OCTA, which also has to provide for those who are unable to drive and must depend on buses, certainly has not neglected motorists. It has coordinated operations with Caltrans and two months ago completed the $166-million expansion of the El Toro Y, providing 26 lanes at one point in the convergence of the San Diego and Santa Ana freeways. Farther north, the Santa Ana Freeway has been widened; carpool lanes provide smooth connections between that road and the Costa Mesa Freeway.
The massive development in Orange County in the 1970s and 1980s brought in hundreds of thousands of new residents but not enough new roads to keep pace. Approval of a half-cent increase in the sales tax in 1990 gave OCTA the money to remedy past deficiencies. Transportation planners have to continue to keep ahead of the curve, helping residents get from home to job and back as quickly as possible.