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Orange County

OCTA Boosts Budget by 13%

Transit: Agency OKs spending $647 million on a mix of rail and freeway projects, and better bus service.


The Orange County Transportation Authority on Monday approved a $647.3-million budget for next year that earmarks more money for highway improvements, the CenterLine rail project and new bus service to bolster ridership.

After months of preparation, the authority's board of directors unanimously passed a spending package for fiscal 2002-03 that is $73 million, or 13%, more than the $574 million budgeted for the fiscal year ending June 30.

"Our priorities are in the right place," said Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, chairman of the OCTA board. "The budget is not only balanced in terms of finances, it is balanced in its mix of transit and highway projects."

The spending priorities include more bus service, including routes that will run 24 hours a day, and $38 million for preliminary engineering on the revived CenterLine proposal, an 18-mile light-rail system linking Irvine, Costa Mesa and Santa Ana.

The commuter train was shelved last year because of a lack of political support. But renewed interest by the three participating cities helped restart the project. Opponents in Irvine, however, are preparing a ballot initiative to kill the idea.

Also high on the priority list are the long-awaited reconstruction of the Garden Grove Freeway and the widening of the two miles of the Santa Ana Freeway before it enters Los Angeles County.

During the upcoming year, the authority wants to spend $15 million for design work on the Santa Ana Freeway and acquire the right of way for the Garden Grove Freeway project, which will include widening the roadway, sound walls and carpool lanes.

OCTA's expenditures will be paid for with $613.6 million in revenue and $33.7 million in reserves that have been set aside for transportation projects. Officials said spending will increase in fiscal 2002-03 compared with last year because of the purchase of vehicles and several major projects that are moving forward, requiring more staff and capital expenditures.

"It's a larger-than-usual budget increase," OCTA spokesman George Urch said. "We've got four big-ticket items starting up: CenterLine, the 22 [Garden Grove Freeway], I-5 [the Santa Ana Freeway], and a new bus base in Santa Ana."

The authority is planning to add more than 76,000 hours of bus service next year in an attempt to increase the number of passengers boarding annually by at least 784,000. New 24-hour and 20-hour bus service--"night owl" runs--will be added to OCTA's busiest routes, such as the 60, the 43, the 50, and the 57.

After correcting problems caused by fare increases and scheduling changes, OCTA has one of the nation's highest growth rates in bus ridership. It recently celebrated its billionth passenger.

In April 2001, OCTA became concerned when bus ridership fell about 3 million boardings short of expectations for 2000-01. Officials say OCTA has made up that loss. There are now about 60 million boardings a year.

To help handle the renewed growth, OCTA plans to push ahead with a $38-million bus operations center in Santa Ana and add 20 articulated buses--or double buses--to its fleet. The 60-foot vehicles cost more than $500,000 each.

In other action Monday, the OCTA board postponed for up to a year a decision on whether to add more representatives from county cities to the authority's board. OCTA has been under pressure by the county's 34 cities to expand municipal representation on the policy-making body.

The cities seek to increase the number of directors from local municipalities from six to 10--two from each of the five supervisorial districts. The proposal would raise the number of voting members on the board from 11 to 15 and eliminate the body's three alternate directors.

The issue resurfaced when Santa Ana Mayor Miguel A. Pulido recommended a compromise that would add two cities and guarantee board slots to the county's three largest cities--Anaheim, Garden Grove and Santa Ana.

City officials and board members agreed that more time was needed to thoroughly research whether the panel should be overhauled and, if so, how it might be reconfigured.

"Lots of issues need to be ironed out," said board member and Anaheim Councilwoman Shirley McCracken, who is skeptical of the proposal. "How many large and small cities should be on the board? Do we even need these changes? All these issues need to be placed on the table."

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