OC REGISTER Commentary -- Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Sunday, July 18, 2004

OCTA needs rendezvous with reality

The Orange County Register

Should the Orange County Transportation Authority continue to squander an inordinate amount of its energies and local transportation dollars on building a 9-mile light rail line that will be lucky to move one-half of 1 percent of Orange County commuters, or should it focus on improving the roads and freeways that move us?

That's the question that should be on a coming ballot, given that, under the current leadership, the agency has downplayed road projects because of its pursuit of rail - ultimately, an attempt to force us out of Dreaded Cars and into the costly rail systems popular with trendy elites.

Actually, the OCTA board voted on Friday against supporting any sort of question regarding light rail to appear on the November ballot, even one far more balanced than the one I offer above. The board's majority (Tim Keenan, Shirley McCracken, Bev Perry, Greg Winterbottom and Miguel Pulido) absolutely, positively does not want county residents to give "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" on OCTA's billion-dollar-plus boondoggle.

On the surface, that's hard to understand. OCTA brags about vast public support for CenterLine, so what is the agency afraid of?

Jack Mallinckrodt, director of the pro-highway Drivers for Highway Safety, was stunned by the board's arrogant behavior in opposing a vote: "I'm astounded at the testimony of opponents of the vote. They were uniformly up there saying people can't be trusted to vote on things like this."

This week or later, however, the Orange County Board of Supervisors will take up the issue of putting CenterLine to a vote, despite the OCTA board's cynical opposition to an advisory ballot measure. Fortunately, the supes have the ultimate say-so. I think we know why OCTA is opposed to even a nonbinding vote.

Provided the question is written in a fair-minded way, and not tilted to make light rail sound like the holy grail, and provided OCTA doesn't abuse its public funds by inundating county residents with "informational" pieces that are thinly veiled campaign pieces, the public is likely to give this pointless project the boot.

OCTA officials believe that if they build the line, riders will come. Opponents caution that spending that sort of money in the hopes of luring new riders is a pipe dream, and that CenterLine will not move a significant portion of the population and will not mitigate traffic. They point to other rail systems across the country, especially ones in suburban areas rather than dense central cities. Costs are almost always far higher than predicted, and ridership reflects the words from that old song, "Limbo Rock":

How low can you go?

OCTA CEO Art Leahy adamantly denies my thesis, that OCTA is harming the county's transportation situation by putting so much emphasis on rail. He points to a wish list the agency sent the federal government last year that favors roads, 2-1. He points to some of the many projects OCTA is funding that are road- and freeway-related.

But OCTA still has to do road- and freeway-related projects, given that the Measure M half-cent tax earmarks dollars for specific things. The real problem, says Mallinckrodt, is in the planning department. "There is no long-range planning for our road system," he said. "All the current road improvements were planned 10 years ago." Instead, OCTA is putting the bulk of its planning focus on rail, and its 10-year plan (from 2002) earmarks almost half of the agency funds for the transit systems that will move 2 percent of residents, and the other half on the roads and freeways 98 percent of us depend upon. Some local officials, such as Garden Grove Mayor Bruce Broadwater, point to the giant sound of resources sucked away from roads and freeways and toward the myopic CenterLine.

OCTA's road and freeway programs have been plagued by delay and cost overruns. One could argue that if the agency focused on those projects rather than on its mad pursuit of rail, things might be going better. The 405/55 project is behind schedule by about 11/2 years and over budget by millions of dollars. The 22 widening is plagued by delays, including state funding problems. There is also, as Mallinckrodt noted, the lack of sufficient future planning.

Leahy was known for his transit work, especially putting in place a rail boondoggle in Minneapolis, and continues to assert that he was brought to Orange County to implement rail. The agency has spent $600,000 in public funds in the last three years on federal lobbying alone, largely to secure CenterLine funding. But it's not going so well.

"Art has a hard time understanding that this is not a liberal Democratic community," said Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, R-Orange, the former supervisor and former chairman of the OCTA board. "He tells me, 'I was hired because the board wants me to build CenterLine.' I say, 'No, that's not the only thing. You must monitor public acceptance rather than impose this on the community.'"

What better way to monitor public acceptance than a vote?

OCTA, however, argues that the public already voted on CenterLine when it approved the Measure M sales tax in 1990, because a light-rail plan was included in the long list of mostly road projects.

"That is so disingenuous," said Spitzer. Measure M failed twice, and the agency kept putting new projects in to sweeten the deal and expand the tax's appeal to new constituencies. One of those sweeteners was a CenterLine project, but "it was not a prominent issue. We had utter gridlock. The 5 freeway was three lanes to Los Angeles. The key question was whether to fund highways."

Spitzer notes that the project promised in Measure M - a study and starter funds for a comprehensive light-rail system that connects much of the county - is not the same as the tiny, white-elephant project being proposed today.

Ironically, a public vote could be the only thing that saves CenterLine. Rep. Chris Cox, the influential Newport Beach Republican, isn't backing federal funding until the public shows support for the project. Leahy, however, told me that some CenterLine backers believe having a vote would signal to Washington the project is stalled.

Pointing to a letter from the Southern California Association of Governments, Leahy notes that if CenterLine is delayed, the Southern California basin will go into air-quality "noncomformity" and could thereby find all its transportation funds frozen.

This just shows how desperate the big-government planners have become. It's almost laughable to think that CenterLine would reduce smog when it won't move many people and it is reducing efforts to build the extra lanes that will really reduce smog by keeping us moving rather than idling.

When Leahy came to OCTA, Spitzer explains, it was during the height of the economic boom. OCTA figured it would spend the bulk of local money on CenterLine and rely on the state and federal sources for roads and highways. But after the budget crisis ensued, those other sources dried up. "All the local dollars are going to CenterLine and all the other funding is not forthcoming," said Spitzer. "Instead of changing priorities, OCTA is now jeopardizing the nuts-and -bolts infrastructure. ... This project is on life support. They need a reality check at OCTA."

Unfortunately, the rail zealots at OCTA don't want to deal with anything as troubling as reality.