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ORANGE COUNTY COMMENTARY

Successful Transit (Not CenterLine)

January 20, 2002|STEVEN B. FRATES

Proponents of Measure M contended that Orange County roads and freeways would be improved if the voters approved the half-cent sales tax increase. They were right. Measure M tax revenues have markedly enhanced the Orange County road system, especially along the Santa Ana Freeway from the Los Angeles County line south past the aptly named Orange Crush.

Many Orange County commuters can attest to the improvements wrought since Measure M passed in 1990. Even if rush-hour traffic can slow to a crawl around the Orange Crush, it would be much worse without the Measure M-financed improvements.

Proponents of the toll road system contended that the toll roads would reduce traffic on the freeways and other arterial roads in Orange County. They were right. The toll roads are, increasingly, siphoning traffic away from more congested routes. Perhaps equally important, the toll road system in Orange County is largely financed by private investors, allowing the limited public road funds to be leveraged into better roads and freeways in other parts of the county.

Two major improvements in the Orange County transportation infrastructure, two major successes. Critics of the toll roads and the Measure M-financed freeway improvements might want to drive up the San Diego Freeway some weekday afternoon and contemplate the rear bumper of the car in front of them as they inch along ever so slowly from the South Bay curve to the San Fernando Valley. Opponents of more freeways in west L.A. were "successful," and now that area is frequently gridlocked. Orange County is in better shape, but not without looming transportation problems.

Like almost everything else in Orange County, these looming transportation problems are made more acute by the fact that Orange County gets less money from the state, $13 per capita for road building and maintenance, than most other California counties. Sacramento County, by way of comparison, gets $26 per capita, or twice as much.

Once again, the Orange County legislative delegation in Sacramento might as well be representing San Francisco. Baghdad by the Bay gets $51 per capita for road building and maintenance. Many Orange County cities, including Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Tustin, get less than $20 per capita. Combined city and county state road fund revenues for much of Orange County are in the $33-per-capita range, a fat $18-per-capita less than San Francisco gets.

In this case, however, Orange County is not alone. Remarkably, Los Angeles County only gets $13 per capita from the state. Riverside County and San Bernardino County do a little better, at $17 per capita each. Is it possible that the Orange County delegation, especially the Democrats who are part of the political majority in Sacramento, can work with their colleagues, particularly Los Angeles County legislators, to get more state money for the Southland?

Now the Orange County Transportation Authority contends that a glorified trolley line in central Orange County is a good use of the limited transportation funds available. They are wrong. Metro areas throughout the U.S. have wasted billions on similar systems. "Light rail" costs way too much, provides very limited service and, even worse, diverts scarce taxpayer dollars from much more effective solutions. By any measure, expanding bus service helps more people (especially those who really need public transportation), costs less, reduces traffic congestion more effectively and is flexible to boot.

Unfortunately, like a toddler digging around in Mom's purse, the OCTA just can't let go of building "something." Mothers know the substitution trick well. If a toddler gets into Mom's purse, a quick switch to a favorite toy can divert the child's attention.

Improved bus service probably won't divert OCTA's attention, but a high-speed monorail from John Wayne to Ontario Airport just might. Consider the manifold benefits of such a monorail. No airport at El Toro, coupled with a permanent reduction in commercial flights from John Wayne, would be popular throughout the county and do much to heal the nasty north-south split. Reduced auto traffic from the Inland Empire could help shorten trip times for all Orange County drivers, especially if the monorail stopped at Anaheim Stadium (with shuttle buses to the Disneyland resort area). Inland Empire commuters to Orange County would benefit from less traffic on the Riverside Freeway. Traffic on the San Diego Freeway would be reduced, which would help Orange County, and perhaps more importantly, Los Angeles.

Of course, such a monorail would cost more than CenterLine. But the monorail would actually have passengers, which would make it more cost-effective.

Also, because the monorail could benefit Los Angeles County, Riverside County, San Bernardino County and Orange County, it is possible that a critical mass of state legislative support could coalesce around changing appropriations to get a greater share of state transportation funds for Southern California.

The contractors pushing CenterLine would certainly prefer the more extensive monorail project. A few of OCTA's urban planning ideologues might be disappointed. Maybe there is a solution. Give the OCTA board members a lifetime pass, and let them ride free to their hearts' content.

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Steven B. Frates is a fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College. He lives in Newport Beach.

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