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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

Keeping Traffic Moving

July 05, 1998

Flash back to 1990, and the Orange County landscape conjures some of the worst gridlock in the state. It was small wonder that the perennial No. 1 concern for UC Irvine annual survey respondents in the early part of the decade was traffic. Today, say experts, there are noticeably more notches in the belt of the area's infrastructure and things are moving again.

Well, not completely. The Costa Mesa Freeway, for example, at certain times of the day looks very much like the old familiar parking lot. The same is true of some other congestion points around the county. Also, as motorists have become accustomed to better conditions, they have excused themselves from the sacrifices they once made of leaving for their destinations earlier. Thus, the places where cars moved at a small crawl, such as the El Toro "Y," still have their anxiety-producing moments. They occur during a smaller time period in the day.

Meanwhile, we are still in the midst of the collection of projects authorized by voters in 1990 as Measure M, the half-cent sales tax measure for transportation improvements. Major road construction continues on the Santa Ana Freeway in the north, with the improvements underway from Beach Boulevard south to the confluence of the Santa Ana, Garden Grove and Orange freeways. The Riverside Freeway continues to be a headache, while carpool lanes, new overpasses and major improvements are being made at the exchange of the Riverside and Orange freeways.

For these inconveniences, voters now are realizing the benefits of their foresight in a reflexively anti-tax county.

Had Measure M not been approved when it was, the temptation to reject anything subsequent like it no doubt would have become stronger as the recession came on. The later decision not to raid Measure M for bankruptcy recovery now stands as another wise decision.

But now that the county economic engine is booming again, the pressures of accommodating expected growth have raised new questions about how the county will cope with new infrastructure demands. As planners note, many of the easiest solutions of road widenings have been explored. The Measure M tax period, running 20 years, is expected to run out right in the middle of a new burst of anticipated population growth.

Looking ahead, the county expects more growth in South County and new pressures on commuters from Riverside County. So as the voters rightly can take pride in their decision at the beginning of the decade, there may not be unlimited time to enjoy the benefits.

The coming on line of new toll roads offers one potential solution. At the same time, these roads can be controversial, and ridership projections on the major artery already opened, the San Joaquin Corridor, have not met projections. Some of the congestion solution may lie in our own hands. The commuting choices many of us make--whether sharing rides, adjusting departure hours or having flexible work times--are important.

Another component will be rail. In the midst of all the concern about traffic, one UC Irvine survey in 1992 found that nearly 70% of respondents favored commuter rail service. Since that time, ridership on Metrolink has been an important new way for people to get to work. The Orange County Transportation Authority, which has been forward looking as steward of the Measure M funds, has moved the urban rail concept ahead.

Planning for a new urban rail system is one component of the sales tax measure. But rail can be a very expensive proposition. Prudent fiscal planning and building community consensus are key.

Los Angeles offers a case study in runaway costs, and the opposition of Irvine to one planned route demonstrates the challenge in getting everybody on board a plan.

OCTA has done a laudable job in general of anticipating future growth and making the difficult decisions to accommodate it. May wise choices prevail as the county faces a new round of challenges in the next century.

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