April 23, 2007 - From the April, 2007 issue

OCTA ‘Also' Advocates for Collaborative Regional Goods Movement Agenda

The ports are in L.A. County, the rail yards and warehouses are in the Inland Empire, and the customers are all over the country. So what does Orange County care about goods movement? Plenty, it turns out. The air, economy, and transportation networks of the entire Southern California region are inextricably linked, and the Orange County Transportation Authority has not shied away from engaging in the regional discussion about goods movement and other mobility challenges. MIR was pleased to talk to OCTA CEO Art Leahy about the role his agency is playing in this regional effort.


Art Leahy

In last month's MIR, L.A. Metro CEO Roger Snoble spoke of his collaboration with OCTA on the Multi-County Goods Movement Action Plan. What is OCTA's role in this planning effort?

We understand the terrific economic value of trade, and certainly in Orange County we like trade, prosperity, and jobs. I'm sure that's true everywhere. At the same time, as we look at the prospect for doubling or tripling the volume of goods moving through L.A./Long Beach, we're concerned about the impact of those increases on the local communities. We support greater capacity, but we want capacity investments to be linked to investments in managing the impact of that capacity on the host community.

To that effect, we want to work with the other counties to identify those projects that would have the most impact and especially to get goods to market as soon as possible. We understand that the shippers and the ports are motivated by profit and want to operate at the lowest possible cost.

But from our perspective in Orange County, if you stand to profit, then it's reasonable that you should bear some of the costs. Therefore, we think that there needs to be a multi-decade program that addresses a revenue stream that can pay for capacity and impact management. We want prosperous, healthy communities all through the trade corridors in Orange County, the ports, and throughout Southern California.

What position has the OCTA board taken on the issue of goods movement?

Our board just approved a policy statement on this issue. It says that international trade is an international and national issue; it is not a local issue. There are going to be increases in international trade because that's what the nations around the world and the United States would like to do. We accept that. We think those that are going to profit from it ought to help pay for it. We think that funding for local projects should not be used to pay for the impact of goods movement, and it goes further to say that federal monies that have been designated for local projects should not be used to pay for goods movement either. We support international trade, but a major portion of these goods are going to Kansas and Oklahoma and Chicago. This is not local trade. It's international trade with local impacts.

This is obviously a complex issue with a lot of actors, but we think there should be a partnership between the counties, the ports, the host cities, and the shippers to work together to figure out how to do all this work in a way that is reasonable and that spends funds fairly. We also understand that container fees can be controversial. We understand the shippers' perspective that these funds would be contractually focused on transportation projects. We think that's completely reasonable.

With the growth in cargo from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles in mind, what other infrastructure projects is OCTA investing in?

We're making major investments on the SR-91 corridor and on the I-5. We're glad that L.A. County is moving ahead with its I-5 project. It's fair to say that those projects are good for everybody. But to have all that additional capacity sucked up by trucks is probably not the motivation that we had when we started those projects. We want to figure out a way that respects the shippers and truckers and railroads but does so in a way that doesn't bring the host communities to a stop. If we triple the number of trains through Orange County and the San Gabriel Valley, it can have a devastating impact, and we think that's not appropriate.

Last year, Orange County Business Council Executive Director Lucy Dunn told MIR that Orange County wasn't going to rely on state and federal infrastructure funds. Instead, she suggested that the county is better served by Measure M, the county sales tax. Now that Prop 1B has passed, what are the prospects for leveraging local funds to secure more state funds for Orange County's infrastructure?

In November 70 percent of Orange County voters voted in favor of Measure M, a $12 billion, 30-year program. The last time the voters in Orange County voted for 70 percent a tax measure was in 1912. It's a major achievement.

We differ from Los Angeles in that our tax is not permanent and has a program of projects to which the funds are dedicated. We spent two years working with the OCBC developing a program that moves money into transit projects, Metrolink, street maintenance, and the freeway system. We also have been working on major investments in the 405 corridor, the 91 corridor, so we were very well positioned when the CMIA money came up for discussion a few months ago.

Orange County did fairly well in securing state transportation funding because we've been planning on it and we're ready, and even though we did tax ourselves we still felt it was reasonable that we'd compete for state funds. As a consequence, we got about $384 million for the 22, 605, 405 connectors, and the 91 and 57. We're pleased about that, and we'll continue to compete for state and federal funds.

I think the four counties-L.A., Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino-have a very strong reason to work together. The four counties ought to be working together in Sacramento to maximize the take for Southern California to pay for capacity and mitigation. We know that counties in the Central Valley and the Bay Area will be seeking those funds, and we understand that. But the high-value trade comes through L.A./Long Beach, and we have to keep those goods moving in a way that preserves the quality of life for those communities.

It's much easier to suggest that counties should work together than it is to actually do so. The state constitution makes no mention of regions, but obviously congestion and air quality are regional issues. What fiscal incentives do the counties have to actually collaborate in seeking funding from Sacramento or Washington?

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The CTC will be developing guidelines to allocate $2 billion to the counties for goods movement projects. There will be a vote that will at least recommend a set of guidelines, and the Legislature will weigh in on them and on what projects might be funded. Southern California has a very large delegation, but no one county has a majority of the Legislature in Sacramento. That should give us an incentive to work together, especially since we're all working on different aspects of the same problem.

I don't want to sound Pollyanna-ish, but as you may know very soon there will be more people living in L.A. and working in Orange County than vice-versa, which means that L.A. is emerging as our largest suburb, and we think that there are good, practical reasons why our delegation ought to talk, work together, and figure out how to fund these projects of mutual interest. Anybody can become obstructionist-like South Pasadena with the 710 Freeway. That's why we need to make sure that we all remain positive participants in the system.

How difficult has it been, given the incentives and disincentives in how localities are funded, to cooperate across jurisdictions in truly regional fashion?

One of the issues that OCTA has generated a discussion with San Diego and L.A. MTA and, recently, Caltrans, is exactly what you're talking about-the LosSan Corridor. Three rail services run on that corridor, and they're all paid for by the same people: the users, the passengers, and the taxpayers. Yet, because they're three different services, the schedules aren't coordinated, the fares aren't integrated, the station stops aren't the same, and the service is sparse. We've been engaging with the other counties with the notion of running all-day service 18 hours per day, seven days a week through Orange County to San Diego and Los Angeles so that you can go to dinner in Los Angeles or go to San Diego on the weekend. That means that the three counties and Caltrans and the feds have to work together to figure out how it's going to happen. That's a complicated problem.

Generally, in terms of regionalism, it can be tough because it's not front and center in our daily lives. But you can achieve some things. A few years ago Riverside County was radioactive over the SR 91 toll lanes. We bought out the non-compete clause five years ago and both counties then made major investments, and what was a very antagonistic relationship has turned into one characterized by a high level of trust and collegiality because we did something that was beneficial for both counties. We think that's a model that can apply to other counties.

We've had meetings with members of the L.A. Metro and OCTA boards, and we want to talk about the 405, the 5, LosSan Corridor; we have a bunch of stuff to work on together. As with goods movement, it doesn't make sense to think that you're going to solve one county's problems without involving other counties.

Is it fair to say that cooperation relies more on good institutional leadership than on public policy? OCTA doesn't get any extra money or get its projects approved any faster by working with other county transit agencies, does it?

Leaders are supposed to do things that are right. They're supposed to take on issues. If you're going to be in an important position, you're only in that job for so long. At the end of that period, don't you want to believe that you accomplished something? That you made a contribution? Not just because it's in my job description but because it's the right thing to do in Southern California. We should be motivated by aspirations and pride and by a desire to contribute, not just to check off the boxes on a job performance evaluation.

Orange County has just elected a new supervisor. Have the politics in Orange County been changing as a result?

It's too early to tell. Supervisor Nguyen had her first meeting recently, and I expect her to be involved in all these issues. Typically, Orange County tries to take a pragmatic view of issues, so we'll be looking at what projects we can move most promptly and what projects make the biggest impact and make the most sense in terms of cost and impact. OCTA has a 17-member board, and six of them have been in place only since January. They are beginning to get their sea legs and will have an impact as time goes on. But so far the OCTA board is a business-like, pragmatic board. The voters in Orange County know that a dollar invested in OCTA is a dollar well spent.

For readers who don't know what it's like to be the CEO of a major transportation agency, how did you get talked into taking it? And what exactly are your responsibilities?

I'm a native of Los Angeles, so I love California and Southern California. I spent some time in Minnesota, and people think I came here for the climate, but that isn't the case. I came here because we're making major investments that are going to shape the future of Orange County. They're going to decide, to a major extent, what sort of place Orange County is in the future. We are making sure that we have prosperity and that we maintain the quality of life that brought all of us to California. That's why I want to be the CEO of the OCTA.

There are great people in Minnesota; it's a wonderful place. But I learned some things about California, and one of them is this: in California it is OK to dream great dreams. It is OK to aspire to the highest level of achievement. I think Southern California ought to be the best place on earth to live, and the OCTA is a way that I can make a small contribution to that objective. Working with the board and others to make that contribution is a challenging and demanding task.

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