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Massive Transit Plan OKd

If Orange County's $12-billion proposal receives approval from county and cities, it -- and sales tax hike -- will be on November ballot.

April 25, 2006|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

A nearly $12-billion plan to widen freeways, expand commuter rail service and improve major thoroughfares over the next three decades was approved Monday by the Orange County Transportation Authority and sent to county supervisors and cities for approval.

If approved, the plan would be put on the ballot along with a proposed extension of a half-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax to pay for it.

"It is a very big step, because this is the plan -- assuming that 50% of the city councils and the board of supervisors approve it -- that will be presented to voters in November," said Bill Campbell, chairman of the Board of Supervisors and OCTA director.

The proposed tax would be an extension of Measure M, the county's half-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax used for road and transit projects. Approved by voters in 1990, it expires in 2011. The extension would continue the tax until 2041.

The Board of Supervisors and at least 18 of the county's 34 cities must approve the plan before it can be placed on the ballot. The proposal has won support from the Automobile Club of Southern California, the Orange County League of Cities and environmental groups, and has drawn little opposition.

At the meeting, Hamid Bahadori, the Automobile Club's principal transportation engineer, said that an extension of Measure M was essential, because the state had diverted $4.5 billion for highway improvements to other programs.

Congested freeways and bad roads are challenging the county's quality of life, he said.

Under the new OCTA initiative, the breakdown for spending is 43% to improve freeways, 32% for streets and 25% for public transit, including commuter rail, such as Metrolink, and buses.

Major freeway improvements would include nearly $5 billion to relieve the congested Riverside Freeway, Interstate 5 in southern Orange County, the Costa Mesa Freeway and heavily used interchanges such as the Santa Ana Freeway at the Costa Mesa Freeway and the Orange Crush -- where the Orange, Garden Grove and Santa Ana freeways meet just south of Angel Stadium in Anaheim.

Improvements to the Riverside Freeway, the main connector between Orange and Riverside counties, would include new lanes, interchanges and bridges.

The $3.6 billion for local streets and roads represents a doubling of the current Measure M funding.

Cities and the county could use the money for new asphalt, fixing potholes and synchronizing traffic signals.

With public transit money, the authority plans to upgrade the existing Metrolink rail system, which could mean more stations, bridges and underpasses, as well as sound walls to limit noise, and transit to major educational facilities, tourist and major job centers.

Various OCTA directors, including Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, already envision ways to spend the money.

At the meeting, he said a bus or rail car could take passengers to Disneyland or the convention center from the Anaheim Metrolink station.

Cities would have considerable discretion in deciding how to use the money, said OCTA's Monte Ward, who is in charge of special projects.

"This also would allow cities like Irvine to connect to the Spectrum, or for Buena Park to connect to areas along Beach Boulevard."

Before OCTA approved the plan, it made modifications to the spending plan in response to local concerns.

Those changes include a provision that prohibits a renewal of CenterLine, the controversial rail project through central Orange County that died after $60 million in planning.

Also, the plan now contains specific assurances that proposed widening of the San Diego and Costa Mesa freeways will adhere to earlier promises to limit disruptions on communities along the route.

In addition, the plan earmarks about $237 million to help reduce pollution from storm runoff and environmental damage from highway construction.

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