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To O.C. Transportation Chief, Communication Is a 2-Way Street

Informing the public about freeway revamps is a top priority. But the agency also needs feedback.

January 24, 1999|SARAH L. CATZ | Sarah L. Catz is chairwoman of the Orange County Transportation Authority's Board of Directors

We are making so many improvements to streets and freeways in north Orange County that sometimes it's impossible not to be delayed by a construction crew. Currently, the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) are widening both the Santa Ana and Riverside freeways, rebuilding three key interchanges and improving on- and off-ramps--all projects that are badly needed to keep Orange County moving.

Why and how are we doing so many things at the same time? The why question is an easy one. A key reason all this has to be done at once is that these projects are linked inextricably. Fixing one freeway can't be done without affecting the other and without impacting every street that connects with either freeway.

Having to do everything at the same time is one thing--making sure it happens successfully is another matter. The only way OCTA and Caltrans have succeeded is by making sure that communication with the public becomes a paramount priority. This has happened thanks to extensive public participation and outreach efforts.

Keeping the public informed has been one of my top priorities as OCTA chairman, and I'm convinced that public participation is absolutely critical to future progress.

Making any transportation project work requires efforts to communicate with more audiences than ever before.

The improvement projects along freeways in North County are a case in point. OCTA has communicated with many new audiences. Among those contacted are residents and schoolchildren, commuters, visitors and tourists, business owners and merchants, large employers, and the media.

As part of the Santa Ana Freeway widening project, OCTA has conducted more than 1,000 in-person meetings with businesses in the construction area. Residents have also been contacted through door-to-door, bilingual outreach. In fact, more than 30,000 residents have received information about construction activity at their doorsteps. Tourists and convention-goers also are getting the word through hotels, restaurants and other facilities. Even trucking companies passing through the area are being contacted.

No audience can be ignored. This will become even more important as we move to the next generation of transportation improvements for Orange County. Current construction has reached the point of diminishing returns. We are spending $1.1 billion to widen the Santa Ana Freeway. Farther south at the "El Toro Y," we have the world's largest freeway interchange, which is 26 lanes at its widest point. While there are a few freeway improvements still needed, paving our way out of congestion is no longer an option.

The need for additional public transit service is becoming more widely accepted and more acutely obvious. Orange County soon will be home to thousands more jobs and residents. Some are even predicting a 70% increase in jobs by the year 2020. While most people still will be driving, we will need to do more in providing commuter trains, buses and even a light-rail system.

The change in perspective will require even more communication. OCTA must make it a top priority to continue expanding outreach efforts.

There isn't a public agency in Southern California that does more to communicate with residents, but OCTA must do more to make the future a success. The challenges can be met, and OCTA will do so as long as the agency keeps its commitment to working closely with the public.

While it might be a number of years before we see light rail in Orange County, now is the time to be heard and to participate in the process. The same goes for any transportation programs. OCTA offers a number of opportunities to be heard. I urge anyone who cares to take advantage of those opportunities. Let us know what you are thinking.

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