April 19, 2006 - From the MIR, April, 2006 issue

Orange County Invests in Transportation Projects, Encouraging Higher-Density Housing

A veteran of state and local government, Orange County Business Council Executive Director Lucy Dunn understands California's needs -- and the legislative impediments to meeting those needs. A strong advocate for more housing and, in her latest role, the economic vitality of Orange County, Ms. Dunn shared with MIR her thoughts on the failed infrastructure bond measure as well as the need to allow self-help regions, such as Orange County, the latitude to make public investments as they see fit.

Lucy Dunn

The Orange County Business Council was one of many organizations that lobbied in favor of the June infrastructure bond measure appearing on the ballot. When that effort failed, Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters laid the blame on the state's "dizzyingly dense mélange of ideological, geographical, cultural, and economic subgroups that interact with a political structure that in effect gives every stakeholder virtual veto power over the bill." Is that your take on how the Capitol operates?

I think he is very insightful in his analysis. The Orange County Business Council has recently been spending a lot of time in Sacramento and we were there during the week before everything collapsed. We shared with elected officials the fact that we in Orange County have a long history of taking care of our own and trying to control our own destiny. As a result, we were seeking a June ballot measure, not only because, as everyone in California agrees, the infrastructure needs are enormous, but also because Measure M-which is our half cent sales tax for transportation improvements in Orange County-could be on the ballot in November.

With our history of taking care of ourselves, we do not want to compete with a state ballot initiative in November 2006. So, it was a double whammy. First, we wanted to tell Sacramento to get California's needed infrastructure projects moving, and, second, remind them that Orange County will also take care of its own, as we have been doing for 100 years.

Why does the Legislature have such difficulty coming to consensus on the type of transportation, infrastructure, and water bonds that were proposed by the governor and Senator Perata?

In many respects, it is a clash of philosophies and politics. I think leaders of both parties realize that we need to make these investments. But the question becomes, what are the right things to include? After waiting so long to do something so big, it seemed that there was a "pile-on" effect, i.e., including programs that weren't appropriate for a major capital bond initiative for infrastructure. We need the roads and the water systems, but adding millions of dollars for soccer programs to a long-term capital bond expenditure didn't make sense. I think adding those things for each area caused the initiative to collapse under its own weight. Look, everyone agreed we needed a bond for infrastructure and the legislature couldn't pull it together! Imagine if they had disagreed.

There is a second component that I find fascinating: for the last 50 or so years, the scales in California have tipped heavily toward protecting all open space and everything environmental. That is all right and good, but sometimes that balance has gone towards the environment to such an absurd degree that we haven't been taking care of our people's needs. Adding unwieldy environmental costs into the infrastructure bond means you're not getting infrastructure: you're paying for processes, reports, and mitigation, not roads or water reservoirs. That becomes a philosophical issue among folks: how do you balance the value we have for the environment against actually getting concrete poured to take care of a quickly growing state population-a population that will grow from 37 million to 50 million within the next 20 years?

In the March MIR, David Grannis assessed the nature of the bond failure, and he focused on the last of the highway and transportation funds, maintenance funds, trade infrastructure, and air quality investment – a whole slew of capital investments whose absence diminishes the quality of life in California. What did this failure mean for Orange County?

On the macro scale, most people don't realize that Orange County is the fifth largest county in the nation in population and that we are second in density to San Francisco. Yet, sometimes we are overshadowed by the interests in Los Angeles. Our ability to effectively compete in the 21st century requires those infrastructure measures move our people and goods, not only in Orange County, but throughout the state as a whole. Water supply and storage is a critical issue for Orange County as well. Locally, very few dollars from last month's bond measure would have come to Orange County. Orange County, unfortunately, is a donor county to the rest of the state. As a result, we must control our own destiny and not rely on Sacramento.

Over and over again, Orange County ends up frustrated and disappointed in the failures in leadership of the Legislature. That's why we tend to focus on taking care of our own. Renewing Measure M, for example, will have $12 billion available for Orange County's transportation needs, compared to less than $400 million under some of the state's proposals. We supported the statewide infrastructure bond because it was the right thing to do for the good of the state.

In the January MIR, OCTA head Art Leahy said that OCTA is going to encourage transit oriented development, especially in conjuncture with Metrolink. What was the significance for Metrolink when that bond failed? How does infrastructure investment relate to transit oriented development in Orange County?

I'll refer back to Measure M and its renewal. The current plan before the public for review dedicates about 43 percent of future funds to freeway improvements, 32 percent to local roads and streets, and about 25 percent to transit projects. That money would go to improving our Metrolink service – perhaps adding new stations as well as supporting links with service centered on jobs and population centers. Demographic changes, rich job-opportunities, and county population growth are starting to help our cities embrace vertical development.

The perfect example is the city of Anaheim, with a major transit center in the same parking lot as Anaheim Stadium, and the Platinum Triangle, where a number of high rise residential and mixed use towers are all going in to take advantage of Metrolink service as well as the new dynamic of Anaheim's revitalized downtown. We see the same vision in Santa Ana and Irvine. But we're looking to funding from renewing Measure M, not Sacramento, to help incentivize transit-oriented development and our future in Orange County.

Home construction continues at a rapid pace in Southern California, and reports indicate that more homes will be built this year than last year. Give us a sense of how Orange County is handling population growth.


This transition is creating a rather difficult environment in Orange County. Our own people having babies is the primary factor for population growth in Orange County. In many of our cities there tends to be a sense of "let them drive;" in other words: "Let them live in San Bernardino and Riverside and come work in Orange County," where we have almost four jobs for every house. Our jobs-housing balance is a problem for us, so one of the issues for us is encouraging our cities to embrace more housing choices. Many Orange County communities believe that they are "built out." But they're not built out as long as their residents continue to have babies.

So, you look at cities like Santa Ana, Anaheim, and Irvine, which are all starting to take the lead in promoting multi-family development: different choices for our residents that come from vertical development, especially well-placed vertical development next to transit oriented centers.

I think cities like Huntington Beach-which imposes a three-story height limit-are going to have to look really hard at their future in order to care for their growth and retain their jobs. Notwithstanding our large population and density, about 50 percent of all of Orange County is protected open space, agricultural land, or "uncommitted land," which has nothing on it. So, even the single-family, detached developments tend to be small-lot developments that preserve open space within their communities.

MIR's sister publication, The Planning Report, interviewed Great Park architect Ken Smith, who advanced the notion that Orange County is beginning to accept and welcome true urban centers. While that park took the place of a much-needed airport, what's the interest of the Orange County Business Council in the evolution of the Great Park?

We are very interested. We recognize that vision for this state-of-the-art park will require an iterative process taking many years. One interesting aspect of the park is the coupling of housing opportunities with unique forms of transportation-they are talking monorail-in order to get people from community to community within that Great Park area.

Different types of housing products are being planned along with visitor-serving components and a life-long learning center that will take you from earliest childhood education up through college and beyond. The Great Park is a unique way to look at land and something that the county can be very proud of. It encompasses far more than just open space. It will be a sustainable integration of live, work, and play in Orange County.

Legislative leaders are currently getting together to update the infrastructure bond measure for the November ballot along the lines of what was on the table when it failed on March 15. If they appear on the ballot, might Orange County postpone its vote on Measure M?

We will have to look at that. Renewing Measure M is still in public review with the public comment period ending March 31. Then we'll look at what the legislature comes up with for a ballot measure, maybe do some polling, and determine what would be the right thing to do for November. We will have to look at it very closely and see if our voters have an appetite for two very different measures on the same ballot. We know we have to take care of Orange County in some way or another, recognizing that our Measure M expires in 2011. It will require a two-thirds vote, unlike the first time it went on the ballot, when it only required 50 percent-plus-one. Measure M constitutes an investment of $12 billion over the next 30 years; we know that money will trump anything coming out of Sacramento.

We learned, following the deliberations in the Capitol on the state bond, that the press seems to cover infrastructure as if it's a political horse race; i.e., it's part of a campaign, and that's the only legitimate issue with which to frame the stories. What is the problem with that kind of coverage for the efforts that the Orange County Business Council supports?

Of course, the needs of state infrastructure survive administrations. They're supposed to be "long-term" needs; you can't disconnect politics from them. The governor took the strong position of "build it" in his State of the State address. Senator Perata points out that he spent over a year trying to devise a good plan. Speaker Nuñez certainly wants to take care of L.A. issues. Politics are part of the deal, but elected officials should have been preparing to take care of our growing population by working on infrastructure years ago.

It's fascinating to me: the only thing about California that you can consistently predict is that our population grows about half a million people each and every year and has since 1950. That is the equivalent of adding a City of Long Beach or San Jose every year for the last 50 years! Yet we don't plan for our growth and so our growth plans us. At some point the business community has to start saying, "what are we electing these people for?" If the business community has to keep stepping up maybe we should be doing this ourselves.

My challenge to our elected officials is, for once, put aside those special interests and start focusing on the needs of our people from the broad community base. Don't ask: "what's in it for me?" Rather, ask: "what's in it for the good and the future of all California?" It would be unique to see that perspective in Sacramento.


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