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ORANGE COUNTY VOICES

Measure M Tax Paying Off in Traffic Flow

Now 10 years old, the half-cent sales levy is working well to meet the county's transportation needs.

November 26, 2000|LAURANN COOK | Laurann Cook is chair of the Orange County Transportation Authority and is on the Fountain Valley City Council

Ten years ago this month, the voters of Orange County approved Measure M, a half-cent sales tax for a specific list of countywide transportation improvements. It was a historic occasion.

Orange County's conservative electorate does not pass tax increases lightly. Obviously frustrated, they felt strongly that something had to be done to help alleviate the county's growing traffic congestion crisis that appeared to have no end in sight.

The initiative stipulated that funds would be collected over a 20-year period and be administered on behalf of the public, the cities and the county by the Orange County Transportation Authority. An independent Citizens Oversight Committee would be created to supervise the expenditures. The measure also required cities to implement growth-management plans.

Now, on the 10th anniversary of Measure M, we easily can see how our investment has been paying dividends. I would like to reflect on some of the numerous accomplishments:

* More than $1.3 billion has been spent widening Orange County's freeways. The Santa Ana Freeway was expanded from six lanes to 10--even 12 in some locations--and was bridged by dozens of new, wider overpasses. Likewise, the Riverside Freeway, the Costa Mesa Freeway and the Orange Freeway have had lanes added. The El Toro "Y" interchange was widened and improved.

* More than $481 million from Measure M was given to cities to invest in their surface streets and roads. Traffic signals were coordinated, turn pockets and extra lanes were added, tie-ins with freeways were improved, streets were resurfaced and potholes repaired.

* Another $260 million was utilized to purchase existing railway tracks to help create Metrolink, the commuter rail service. Transitways for buses and carpools received $50 million and transit fares for seniors and persons with disabilities were kept affordable. A CenterLine light-rail project is nearing decision on a final alignment, environmental clearance and the selection of a starter segment for further design.

* The issuance of sales tax revenue bonds accelerated most freeway work to completion within 10 years, instead of 20 years, and the benefit of earlier traffic relief has been invaluable for motorists and the local business community. Moreover, the timing was right for savings in right-of-way acquisition and reduced construction prices during the recession of the early '90s.

* Funds were allocated exactly as specified in the voter-approved plan. Cities maintained their prior transportation spending efforts and adopted growth-management plans to qualify for Measure M funds. The Citizens Oversight Committee exercised strict, independent guardianship and the measure proved to be bulletproof through court challenges and the attempted diversion of Measure M revenue for county bankruptcy relief.

OCTA has taken its commitment to delivering on the promise of the Measure M plan very seriously over the last 10 years. With Orange County's continued economic expansion, the measure has annually generated over $200 million in financial resources that have approximately doubled our return of federal and state gasoline taxes.

Although Measure M is poised to deliver all of the transportation projects it is committed to, will it be enough to meet the county's growing transportation needs? Keeping pace with an anticipated 11% growth in population and a 19% increase in jobs during this next decade is going to be a challenge. The prospect of so many more people and commuters is daunting, especially if you include the county's expected increase in tourism.

Further freeway widenings are problematic because of adjacent homes and buildings, escalating construction and right-of-way costs, and strong air quality laws.

Smoothing choke points on the freeway system, however, is achievable and will most likely be the next step. More than $125 million is committed to street improvements in all 33 cities, and improvements now are being prepared. Hundreds of millions of dollars more will follow during the duration of the measure.

OCTA is also committed to providing more travel choice options to people. Our vision is that bus and rail transit will increasingly be part of the new solutions.

We need to continue to work hard to stay ahead and be careful to not fall victim to overwhelming traffic congestion once again. As we begin our second decade under Measure M, we need to remember that good planning for large transportation projects takes time and preparation.

It has been a very productive first decade. More good things are on the horizon for Orange County for the next 10 years. We need to continue to make good on our commitment and effectively deliver the remaining pieces of Measure M. It is difficult to believe what life in the county would be like without it.

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