New political coalition fights traffic congestion

It's 5:14 p.m. on the Santa Ana Freeway. Bump bump bump. Bumpety bump bump. Bump bump. We are moving, this river of cars, shimmering like a mirage in the late afternoon heat. But not too fast.

The needle on my speedometer trembles just below the 15 m.p.h. mark.

When real estate brokers sell an Orange County house on the basis of its being, say, 45 minutes from Los Angeles, it's not minutes like these they're thinking of.

The 18th-century Spanish monks trudging from mission to mission along El Camino Real, whose path the Santa Ana Freeway follows partway, may have made better time.

The transportation issue - freeway congestion - is the aspect of Orange County people most love to hate. But it has also been another arena for Orange County to demonstrate that it is coming into its own, stepping out from the shadow of Los Angeles.

The basic problem has been that Orange County is lurching through the 1980s on a freeway system built during the 1950s and '60s. During the 1970s, recession and Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.'s small-is-beautiful philosophy cramped further expansion of the system. ''Infilling'' rather than opening up broad new sections of land for development was favored under his ''urban strategy.''

Conservative local politicians refused considerable federal highway money during the '50s and '60s because of the strings attached. This left the county particularly dependent on the state for highway money. All but two of the freeways are state, not federal, highways.

And Orange Countians are so in love with - or at least committed to - the private car on the freeway as principal, indeed, sole mode of transport that my Boston-formulated questions about whether mass transit has a chance struck me as too laughable to ask as soon as I got to California. The 1980 census found that three-fourths of all workers in Orange County drove to work alone; less than 2 percent used public transportation.

The freeways built in the 1960s for $1 million a mile now cost $100 million to $150 million a mile. Today it costs as much to maintain a mile of road as it used to cost to build it, county officials say.

Like many other places, Orange County has been hit coming and going on the gasoline tax: Assessed as cents per gallon rather than a percentage of the value of the gasoline, revenues have remained static as prices of gasoline - and everything else - have soared.And improved fuel efficiency means cars generate less revenue per mile driven.

County planners are recommending construction of three new major travel corridors - not quite freeways, but more than local highways. They would be built by the county, not the state - and there is speculation that at least one of them could be built as a toll road.

What's making people think in terms of a new era in road building is the Orange County Transportation Coalition, a bipartisan group of business leaders who have fought to get a bigger slice of the highway-fund pie from Sacramento.

Until recently Orange County was included with Los Angeles and Ventura Counties in a single transportation district, through which freeway funding was channeled. Los Angeles County, unsurprisingly, got the lion's share.

But Orange County residents were generating more in gasoline tax revenue than they were getting back from the state. And their freeway problems were acute.

So local leaders formed a coalition to lobby Sacramento for a better deal. The group included Democrats Richard O'Neill (rancher, restaurateur, and former state party chairman) and Pacific Mutual Life Insurance chairman Walter Gerken, as well as Republicans Peter Kremer of the Irvine Company and J. Robert Fluor, chairman of the corporation that bears his name.

They fought for and won passage of a bill to make the county a separate district, District 12. The next victory was passage of a bill, known to everyone around the county as SB 215, which raised the gasoline tax 2 cents a gallon - thereby ensuring that there would actually be some funds to distribute to the new district.

Another happy sign on the transportation front has been Governor Brown's appointment of Orange County Supervisor Bruce Nestande to the California Transportation Commission. This, however, may have less to do with Sacramento's sudden concern for Orange County's welfare than with Governor Brown's estimation of his chances of winning the US Senate seat he's trying for without some help from Orange County.

More road building would help the county export at least part of its housing crisis into neighboring Riverside County more smoothly than at present, and would also help by opening hitherto inaccessible parts of the county for development.

But if more roads will ease the housing crisis, good planning of housing development can also ease the transportation crisis. If industrial space is included in the planned communities so beloved here, some people, at least, could have virtually no commute.

Putting up workplaces alongside residential neighborhoods is easy - in theory. Employers hesitate to move into an area until residents are there. If residents in new developments do have to commute, it may be to Irvine or Tustin, instead of all the way to Los Angeles.

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