When Arthur Leahy was announced as the Orange County Transportation Authority's new Chief Executive Officer many believed that he would bring with him an increased focus on transportation and mobility, not merely a penchant for widening and repaving freeways, arterials and collectors. It seems as though their belief was correct. MIR was pleased to sit down with Mr. Leahy and talk about the major projects currently underway in Orange County, how they fit into the greater mobility plan for the region and what he believes should be the message coming from Southern California as we lobby for funds from the federal government.
Mr. Leahy, when your came on board as the CEO of OCTA you were heralded as someone who focuses on creating seamless, comprehensive transit systems, rather than merely prioritizing a set of particular components. Give our readers a sense of the components of the multi-modal system you're trying to create. What's the challenge?
California faces a tidal wave of population growth, transportation demand and other major challenges. How well we deal with those challenges will affect the quality of life in Southern California well into our future. This isn't just about extending freeways, it's about being able to be involved in a broad set of responsibilities and deal with transportation holistically. That's the challenge.
In attempting to address that challenge there are several objectives that must be overcome, the primary one being the effective implementation and construction of the public's major infrastructure projects. A lot of taxpayer money comes to the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA). And it's important that we earn and maintain the trust and confidence of our taxpayers. We need to demonstrate to them that a dollar invested in the OCTA is a dollar well spent.
And how does the Board adopting a set of ten strategic initiatives jibe with your vision and mission?
What the ten initiatives seek to do is address this very broad range of transportation objectives-from freeway projects to street maintenance, Metrolink to light rail-in a very specific manner over the next 10 years.
In my first year as CEO I am proud that we took the lead in terms of the $420 million widening of the SR-22 Garden Grove Freeway. And because the OCTA can use a design-build approach to the project, we are able to speed up the timeline by 4 years. Because of that, a project that Caltrans believed would be complete in 2010 is now projected for completion in 2006. That message of being innovative, working hard and getting projects completed quickly is a very exciting message to be able to send.
Another aspect of our strategic initiative is the investigation into purchasing the 91 Express Lanes Toll Road. The 91 toll road has been operating under a non-competition clause since its inception. And while that clause might make sense from a business perspective, it precludes any infrastructure improvements along that corridor until the year 2030. That is simply unacceptable. The 91 Freeway becomes more congested everyday. And because of that clause we can't even begin to consider solving the problem without its owners, the California Private Transportation Company, talking of litigation.
As such, we are looking at a number of possibilities including either a purchase of the remainder of the non-compete clause or the total acquisition of the toll road. Going 28 more years without improvement in not an acceptable option for the 91 Corridor.
We're also looking at how we can improve some freeway bottlenecks. We're working with the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) and we'll be putting money each year into identifying and correcting those problems through auxiliary lanes, on- and off-ramp improvements and street and road pavement.
In addition we're developing some smart, intelligent transportation systems with some of our local cities. Over the next 7-10 year period, we'll be talking to Metrolink about having midday service and double tracking through the middle of Orange County. When we get that done, we'll have double tracking all the way from San Juan Capistrano to the county line. And as soon as we finish that, we can begin to think about improving service to an all-day, hourly service from San Juan Capistrano to Fullerton and possibly further into L.A.
To complement that rail line, we've rekindled the interest in the Centerline light rail line. It would connect with Metrolink and run from the Irvine Spectrum to the Orange County Airport and to South Coast Plaza with its final destination being the Santa Ana train station. What we have there, then, is potential for direct Metrolink service into Los Angeles or direct light rail service into the interior of Orange County. Those two lines working together could be very effective right away.
These proposals have gigantic potential for Orange County and the greater Southern California region. They will connect dense populations throughout the basin and link them with major employment opportunities in places such as Costa Mesa and Irvine. It's just a natural progression that, when complete, will provide a linkage to civic centers, shopping, population density and jobs.
One of those initiatives is bus rapid transit. It's an experiment which Roger Snoble, the L.A. MTA CEO, is continuing here with the rapid bus program. What's your take on the record and performance of the rapid bus experiment in L.A.? And is it a viable option for Orange County?
One of the best ways to increase demand is to offer better, faster service. And if bus rapid transit (BRT), either by design or through signal preemption, helps move the bus down the street faster, it will be successful and it will get more riders. And L.A. has done some creative things to make the bus rapid transit work in an urban environment.
However, Orange County isn't designed the same way L.A. is and we don't have the same amount of ridership that Los Angeles County has-we're really more of a transitional zone between the highly suburban culture to the south and the heavy urbanized area to the north. But we are going to borrow some of the bus rapid transit ideas from Los Angeles and look at applying them to the dense corridors in central Orange County. We'd also like to look at what we're calling BRT heavy, which would be something that would emulate more closely what a light rail line might look like.
What we want to do is explore all our options for improving mobility in Orange County. We get panned for doing things like bicycle paths and racks, but we want to look at all the options open to us to address a very high demand problem. Transportation is an economic asset and when you stop looking at options or slow down, you begin to endanger the local economy and quality of life.
Let's take a half-step back. We did an exit interview with former OCTA CEO Lisa Mills a little more than a year ago. I want to take a quote from that interview and ask you to respond. She said, "The only thing I wish we could have avoided was the county bankruptcy in 1995. About 10% of the total funds lost were OCTA's. Then to keep the county afloat, an additional $38 million in annual funds were taken. The gas tax only returned $23 million, so we're still in the hole $15 million for about 15 years." She went on to say what a weight that has on your ability to deal with the agendas that you just talked about. How have you been able to move forward on these agendas, given the financial deficits that you have to build on?
Lisa was correct and that has limited what we can do. Yet, at the same time, we have Measure M, a sales tax that runs until 2011. It is helping us tremendously and continues to produce significant revenue. That, coupled with state and federal funds, is providing us considerable resources for investing in transportation in Orange County.
What's been the role of the state and its transportation agenda for the year you've been a compatriot of Orange County's pursuit of this agenda? Has it been helpful? Has it been in the way? Has it been a non-issue?
I give Caltrans very high marks. They have been very supportive of the acceleration of the widening of the SR-22 Freeway and our initiative to possibly buy out the CPTC. We have a really good working relationship with them. The relationship between OCTA and Caltrans, at least in my first year at the helm, has been very positive.
The regional Southern California divvying up of transportation funds. Has that been to Orange County's advantage or disadvantage?
Los Angeles has consumed a lot of transportation funds for reasons that are easy to understand. One of the issues we'll face on the light rail project is being supportive of an overall regional agenda, but at the same time, trying to identify Orange County as a significant area in and of itself. We're not against Los Angeles funding transit or highway projects, but we also want to be competing effectively for light rail projects for Orange County. That will take some balancing, but we'll be able to handle it.
One of the things that I say to people here is, "There are 2.8 million people in Orange County today. That's bigger than L.A. City was in 1970. By 2020, we're going to have about 3.4 million-about what LA was in 1990." Even though we in Orange County don't think of ourselves as a big city, we're not a big municipality, we have 32 cities, but we are a big city in the traditional sense. And we have transportation demands, which we're going to work to solve and we'll do so in cooperation with Los Angeles. We'll work together on federal funding for rail projects so that we don't find ourselves in competition.
Mobility is not only transportation, but also linking transportation to land use and housing. As Lisa Mills said in that interview more than a year ago, "Just like with the MTA, people only want OCTA to be involved in transportation decisions, not land use. The best we can do is look at city's general plans and encourage them to build around the transportation network system." Are you still limited by that definition of your jurisdictional responsibility?
It's technically correct. We've had some preliminary discussions with cities along the Centerline about working together on some transit-oriented development. We haven't come to any closure on anything, but there are cities willing to work with us.
We want to make sure that what we build makes sense in the urban context. We want to make sure that there are opportunities for development, that the design of the station and the light rail line reflects that. We want to make sure that we've integrated that facility into future development projects throughout the jurisdiction.
Let's close with this, Art. The reauthorization of one of the federal transit funds is going to be coming up. What is going to be the Southern California and Orange County view on what that reauthorization should include particularly now given the absence of key Southern California congressional representatives on the committees that really matter?
Having worked in the Midwest for the past 4 years, folks back there really don't feel bad about spending Southern California money on projects in Minneapolis or Alabama. We have to find a way to have our voice heard and be back there competing for funds.
I am hoping for a very aggressive package from our representatives in D.C., but given the topsy-turvy world we now live in and a new budget that must deal with the realities of a post-9/11 nation, there will probably be a lot of water under the bridge before we see increases in transportation funding for California.
But that doesn't mean the folks in transportation, highways and transit shouldn't be back there working to make sure that those necessary projects are funded. Investment in infrastructure is a good thing. It's good for the economy in the short- and the long- term. If we fail to continue to invest in this economy, we're going to undermine the health and vitality of Southern California and that will have an adverse effect on the rest of the nation.