January 18, 2006 - From the January, 2006 issue

OCTA Responds to and Plans for Orange County's Emergence as a Truly Urban Metropolis

Orange County has changed, and perhaps no one appreciates that change as much as Art Leahy, CEO of the Orange County Transportation Authority. Once a collection of spread-out subdivisions and wide-open roads and freeways, Orange County has amassed over 3 million residents, creating mobility challenges that rival those of any other major city. MIR was pleased to speak with Mr. Leahy about the myriad of solutions – including rail, toll roads, freeway upgrades, and higher density – OCTA is pursuing.

Art Leahy

After years of discussion, OCTA announced that the CenterLine project is officially dead. Could you elaborate on what happened and how the county will handle continuous growth without it?

What ultimately caused the project to stall out was that we did not succeed in getting federal funds. We feel that there was strong support among voters and we had a strong partnership with a host of cities to build the project, but the congressional delegation was never persuaded that the project should be built. Because the federal funding was a core part of the financial plan we really had little choice but to decide to move on.

Orange County, you could say, is where L.A. was in 1975 or 1980. I grew up in Los Angeles, and I remember that we used to think of Los Angeles as almost a big village rather than a big city. All of a sudden, some time in the '80s, we began to realize that we actually were a big city on a worldwide scale. I think Orange County is kind of in that same position now. We now have three million people, 1.6 million jobs, and it is not a big municipality, but it is a big city. We don't think of ourselves as a big city, though. Having done some survey work, half of our people believe the area to be suburban. All that led to the light rail not catching the imagination of the people, even though they were supportive.

On the OCTA board over the last eight or nine months we've spent a great deal of time exploring options, meeting with a host of cities, trying to figure out what we ought to do to maintain the transit program in the face of this setback. We've come down to three other major alternative investments. They're quite exciting, and the first one is a major investment approved by the board on the order of $3 million in Metrolink. We are looking forward to planning 18 hours of service a day, seven days a week on Metrolink with headways on the order of 20 to 30 minutes.

The idea is to treat Metrolink as the spine of the transit system in Orange County. There are going to be 11 stations on the Orange Line, for example, and a total of two-thirds of the jobs and two-thirds of the population of Orange County is within a four-mile radius of those stations. The idea is to make a big investment in tracks, signal systems, etc. and then build systems that could include fixed guideway or rubber-tired transit systems that would feed and distribute people from those Metrolink stations.

With respect to OCTA and Metrolink, what are you doing to build the park and ride connections so riders can easily use public transit?

We run a special bus service called StationLink, which is timed to correspond to the Metrolink trains and which go to whatever the activity center is for each station. That service is principally only during peak hour because that's when Metrolink service is. Parallel to the improvements in Metrolink service will be an expansion of the StationLink services. That leads to look at redesigning the entire bus system around the Metrolink stations and the station, as it becomes an all-day service, maybe incorporating that special service into the fixed-route bus system.

In the first quarter of next year we are going to make some funds available to cities on a competitive basis for them to come back and propose projects for connecting the Metrolink stations with their business districts or retail districts. Our goal is to fund some planning money for the cities so that they can come back to us with some ideas about TOD or whatever they may have.

Is Orange County's population density great enough to make public transit solutions work efficiently?

Orange County is changing right in front of our eyes. It's becoming increasingly dense. The center part of Orange County has a population density in excess of 10,000 per square mile. There are about 500 square miles of incorporated Orange County, and in that area there are about 1.6 million jobs, three million people, and a lot of economic activity. The idea is to fund cities to plan retail, residential and transportation connections at the Metrolink stations. If you came down here in Santa Ana or Fullerton, there is major high-rise residential construction occurring around Metrolink stations. Just a few weeks ago that the Anaheim City Council approved what's called the "platinum triangle," which is adjacent to the Metrolink station by the Anaheim Stadium area. That's going to be a fabulous investment. It's going to include high-rise residential, high-rise commercial and a number of businesses. A lot of economic activity and residential activity is occurring right now around those stations. We're seeking to work with cities so we can make some sense out of all of this in terms of the transportation system.

Since 1997, 75 percent of state funds have been delegated to the counties to develop priorities, resulting in less money being invested in connections between counties and more money being invested within counties. Is that a fair assessment, and how does one entice counties to begin to collaborate with each other on transportation?

I think that's a legitimate concern. The trade-off, of course, is that the local voters have more control over the transportation investments within their county. I think that's good. At OCTA we fund projects that CalTrans delivers, so we ask CalTrans to come to our board meetings, to make presentations of projects, to give project status, to report on delays, and to report on problems. I think it is very helpful because it creates a very open environment between CalTrans and us. We go before our board, and that means that we work very hard with CalTrans to keep projects moving so that we don't have to report problems.

We really try to view CalTrans as an agent of the OCTA to get our projects delivered as quickly as possible. That's a little awkward because we're a county agency and they're a state agency, but at the same time we're funding them so our board feels the need to be a watchdog for the taxpayers. If you look at the I-5, you obviously see the kind of problem that you're referring to. I'm pleased that as Orange County looks to widen the 5 up to the county line, I think that L.A. is seeing that they have to widen the 5 up to the 605.

I also meet every month with the CEOs of Riverside County, San Bernardino, L.A., Ventura, SCAG, and CalTrans and we talk over all of these issues and try to make some sense out of them. For instance, a few years ago we had an antagonistic relationship with Riverside regarding the 91 freeway. Since we bought the 91 toll lanes, that's completely turned around and we've been able to develop a very collegial, cooperative relationship with Riverside that has recently culminated in unanimous consent on both sides regarding conclusions from a major investment study. I met a couple of days ago with board members and people from San Diego, so we're doing all we can to try to get close to San Diego, Riverside and Los Angeles. But, we need to do better, especially in regard to Los Angeles.

There's been a lot of talk lately about tunneling under the mountains between Orange and Riverside counties. Tell us about the engineering feasibility of that idea as well as the political and financial feasibility of such a project.


Both counties agree that there needs to be improved rail transit between the two counties. We're interested in that and hope someday for a high-speed connection from Anaheim up into Ontario to the airport and maybe points beyond. There was recognition that improvement to the 91 and adding lanes to the 91 is the most immediate priority. We're going to try to squeeze that within the current footprint of that freeway, so we've got our work cut out for us here.

In regard to the tunnel, it's potentially a very large project. It could be $5 billion or more. There's a great deal of support in Riverside and parts of Orange County for a tunnel. We are exploring the creation of a joint powers authority with Riverside County Transportation Commission and with some water districts, MWD and some others, to do some geologic testing along the potential route under the mountains. That work has not been started yet but after we get that we think we'd then be in a better position to assess the technical feasibility and cost of what a tunnel might look like.

Right now there's a number of different ideas being discussed. Should the tunnel have tolls? Should it be free? If it's free it's going to be bigger because demand will be higher. Should it include a water tunnel and utilities? A lot of ideas are being explored. I don't think anybody expects it to happen in the very near future but we are interested in doing the initial geological testing to test feasibility.

With such a wide range of projects on OCTA's agenda, is funding available to realize those ambitions?

The biggest thing going on right now is our Measure M extension. Our sales tax expires April 1, 2011, so we've gone to the board and we've been working with the business community and the local cities for about a year now to develop an investment plan. We will be asking the board to approve a package that would then go to the 34 cities of Orange Country for their consideration and possibly for placement on the ballot in November.

We're considering a 30-year renewal of the half-penny sales tax that would generate about $11.8 billion. That would continue to include 25 percent of the money for transit, a couple of percent for environmental issues and continued money for street maintenance. Cities of Orange County get about half of their street maintenance money from Measure M so for our ability to maintain our road system it is imperative that this tax be renewed. We've got to maintain this transportation system if we're going to maintain the great quality of life we enjoy.

OCTA must be very proud that the American Public Transportation Association recently named it the top public transit system in the U.S. in 2005. How did you earn this award and what lessons can other local transportation agencies draw from OCTA's achievements?

You're right. I am very proud of that. My first day here five years ago I told the management staff that I wanted the OCTA to be the best transportation agency in California and that I wanted an outstanding management team. And I said, "These words are deliberate. I want an outstanding management team. Not pretty good. Not pretty darn good, but outstanding." First and foremost, we've worked to develop the management team, which is highly expert in the various areas in which we work and which is excited and highly motivated.

When we spoke with the APTA about what OCTA does, one of the hardest things for APTA to understand is that OCTA is not just a transit system. Let me just touch on the 22 and the 91. The 22 is the first design-build widening of an existing freeway in state history. CalTrans consented to let OCTA manage the project because we had the design-build authority, which CalTrans does not have. It was by far the biggest project in the history of the OCTA. It was the first time that this process had been used.

I want to just reflect for a moment here that it was the board and the staff's willingness to accept some prudent risk in exchange for trying to be outstanding that was a key ingredient in being able to have success. By the way, I can say something that you don't hear about normal or typical freeway projects. You might hear people say, "Oh, the 22 will be done between 2007 and 2009" or something on that order. What I will say to you and the board of directors is, "the 22 is going to be completed on November 30, 2006." I'm bragging about that to show you that we're focused on budget and schedule and self-discipline so we hold ourselves accountable to deliver.

On the 91 toll lanes, I mentioned that we have a very contentious relationship with Riverside and that it flowed principally from the toll lanes. In end, we bought the toll lanes and got rid of a non-compete clause, which had blocked any improvements on that freeway until the year 2030. This year is the tenth year the toll lanes have been open under public OCTA management. Traffic is higher than ever and the revenue is much higher than it was in the past. The good thing here is that instead of a private company profiting and taking home the dividends, we take the profit and reinvest it in the lanes on the 91 freeway, including parts in Riverside County. On the bus company that we operate, ridership is higher than ever right now. We have an almost perfect bus fleet. We have undertaken some major improvements in the efficiency of our transportation system management and in our customer relations.

A proposed toll road route that would go through San Onofre State Park has drawn a lot of attention lately. OCTA doesn't control the toll road authority, but do you have an opinion on the proposed route?

The OCTA board supports that project. We think that something needs to enhance I-5 down in south county, and the board supports that extension. We're just starting in the first quarter of next year a major investment study on the I-5 in south county so I don't know what will emerge from that but the board supports the extension.


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