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ORANGE COUNTY COMMENTARY

10 Years as a Road Warrior

December 16, 2001|SARAH L. CATZ | Sarah L. Catz is the outgoing public member on the board of directors of the Orange County Transportation Authority

As I come to the close of 10 years as the public member on the board of the Orange County Transportation Authority, it is time to take stock of my accomplishments. I don't remember if I came into the position thinking I could move mountains, but I know I was hoping to make a difference, and my goal was to help provide choice to Orange County--the choice to use a car or some other mode of transportation.

I grew up in the asphalt jungle of Los Angeles, where the automobile reigns. During my college years in Washington, the Metro subway system was inaugurated. I was able to witness firsthand the transformation of a region by a safe and convenient alternative to the car.

When I moved to Orange County in 1982, traffic congestion and overburdened roads and freeways were a growing problem. There was only a bare-bones bus system. Over time, my frustration with the lack of a good transportation system and travel choices mounted.

I transformed frustration into action. I got involved in a variety of transportation-related citizen advisory committees. In January 1992, I was sworn in as the first alternate public member of the newly formed OCTA. Nineteen months later I was elevated to the full public member position.

I was invited to be a representative on the Metrolink board of directors. Metrolink was planning a regional commuter rail system that would serve six Southern California counties. Service began in October 1992, and 15 months later, the Northridge earthquake struck. Freeways buckled, and parts of Los Angeles and Ventura counties were cut off from downtown Los Angeles.

Metrolink's ridership jumped from 5,000 to more than 20,000 in one week's time, proving that transportation options not only provide individuals with personal flexibility, but also can have a significant impact on our economic stability.

Today, Metrolink serves more than 34,000 riders. The success of Metrolink demonstrates that Southern Californians will embrace high-quality transit when it is presented to them as an option. I am particularly proud of the Metrolink system.

I'm also proud of all the improvements made in the past 10 years to our highway network, particularly the widening of the Santa Ana Freeway. We still have choke points that have to be relieved, but much travel time has been lopped off our daily commutes. Although freeway widenings have cost taxpayers billions of dollars (and years of inconvenience), most agree the improvements have been well worth it. Still, there's more we can do rather inexpensively.

In 1993, I asked the public to identify routes throughout the county that had poor traffic signal coordination. I received more than 400 calls and letters in response. City public works directors were at first defensive about why improvements could not be made. In time, however, we made progress on "Smart Streets" such as Beach Boulevard. But more can be done. Today, with the advances in technology, we have the means, if not the will, to synchronize signals countywide.

The importance of being OCTA's public member came into sharpest focus immediately following the 1994 Orange County bankruptcy. Blessed with strong fiscal management, OCTA was the prime target of the Legislature and the Board of Supervisors to finance the recovery. Transportation programs were in jeopardy, especially the bus system. Elected OCTA officials were wearing many governmental hats, and I was wearing only one--the public's. I was able to be a voice for the transit-dependent and other groups who tended to be neglected during this time. And I was reminded of the wisdom of having a public member representative for OCTA.

As I look to the future, I'm confident that OCTA is headed in the right direction. The board of directors recently endorsed a program of 10 initiatives for the next 10 years. It's a balanced plan that offers the commuter choices--from improvements to the Garden Grove and Riverside freeways to greatly expanded Metrolink and bus services; to improved local roads; to the beginnings of a light rail and a rapid bus system. The vision I had 10 years ago has been confirmed. Orange County needs effective transportation choices.

We need to keep improving our freeways and roads. We need more bus service. And as more options, like Metrolink, or light rail or bus rapid transit become available, I know they will be embraced by the public.

In 10 years I have learned that it's hard to move mountains. But with perseverance, you can move many small hills and make a difference in people's lives. Looking back, I can see much progress. Looking forward, I see that much remains to be done.

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