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Officials Hype Sales Tax, Not State Bonds

Officials prefer Measure M, which would mean billions, instead of state proposal's millions.

October 20, 2006|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

When the state's top transportation official spoke of the pros and cons of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's $37-billion infrastructure bond at a recent state meeting, the positive nods rippled through the room.

None, however, came from the Orange County delegation that attended the talk by Will Kempton, who heads the state Department of Transportation.

"Kempton had sought to enlist our help for the bond measure, but we told him no, because of our competing issue in Orange County," said Art Brown, a Buena Park councilman who chairs the boards for Metrolink and the Orange County Transportation Authority.

That "competing issue" is the renewal of an Orange County sales tax called Measure M that shares top billing on the same ballot as Schwarzenegger's bond measures.

Although the state bonds could bring about $460 million to Orange County for transportation projects, Measure M could mean a much heftier check -- nearly $12 billion over 30 years.

"That's why OCTA hasn't taken a position on the bonds," Brown said, arguing that Measure M is the key to whether the county continues to sustain its freeway system and public transit and build better streets.

"This is a major investment for our county, and to me, it's a quality-of-life issue," Brown said.

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.

But getting the permission of voters to extend the tax is not going to be easy. This time around, the measure needs two-thirds of the vote to win.

When the first tax passed, it needed only a majority, and even then it took three tries before the measure passed, with 54.9% of the vote.

The measure's advocates, which include business leaders, developers, labor groups and organizations such as the Orange County Business Council and Automobile Club of Southern California, have raised $1.6 million.

Most of the money will be used for voter outreach, such as campaign mailers, supporters said.

"The beauty of the measure," said Lucy Dunn, chief executive for the business council, "is that every dollar raised stays here in Orange County."

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 artery between Orange and Riverside counties, would include new lanes, interchanges and bridges.

Supervisor Bill Campbell, who is an OCTA board member, said public sentiment to fix the congested freeway runs strong in both counties.

"We've done earlier polling that showed that 72% of the people across the county said, 'You should get the 91 solved,' and that's whether they lived in Huntington Beach or south Orange County," Campbell said.

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, and transit to major educational facilities, tourist and major job centers.

But the new measure is weighted too heavily on transit such as buses and commuter rail, said David L. Mootchnik, a member of Southern California Commuters Forum.

"It will spend 25% of the $12 billion on transit, which on any given day represents only 2% of daily commuters," Mootchnik said.

Metrolink, he said, carries only about 11,000 daily riders now, and even though that number may triple over the next decade, motorists are not convinced it beats their vehicles.

OCTA has five more years until the original tax expires, Mootchnik said, "which gives enough time for transportation planners to alter spending percentages and come back to voters with another, better plan." But Campbell said planners need to get direction of how to spend now, not later.

At a recent luncheon for business owners, Campbell asked: "How many of you have driven up to L.A. County, and did you notice a difference?"

"It got their attention," said Campbell, who emphasized that without the original Measure M, the Santa Ana Freeway would still be "a three-lane freeway in either direction cutting through the county."

In addition, the county wouldn't have matching dollars to compete for funds from the state bond measure, if it passes, Brown said.

"People forget what Measure M has paid for," Brown said. "There would be no renovation to the El Toro Y, no widening on the Garden Grove Freeway, no Metrolink of any kind, and seniors would still be paying full cost for transportation rather than enjoying a subsidy."

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