OCTA Delays Final Decision on the ‘Phantom’ Bridge

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The Orange County Transportation Authority board Monday had to delay a vote to reaffirm its decision to take Costa Mesa’s “phantom” 19th Street Bridge out of future county transportation plans because so many board members had left by the end of the lengthy meeting that there was no longer enough votes for consensus.

The issue was at the bottom of a long agenda, and discussion on the bridge didn’t begin until close to noon. By the time the board was ready to vote, seven of the 17 board members were gone, and there weren’t enough votes to adopt either of two alternative motions. The issue will be taken up again at the board’s May 14 meeting.

The controversial bridge would cross the Santa Ana River, connecting 19th Street in Costa Mesa with Banning Avenue in Huntington Beach. The project, which would cost an estimated $150 million, is strongly opposed by neighborhood residents in both communities.

Topping the list of reasons for the opposition is increased traffic and noise in the neighborhoods that are on either side of the bridge. Environmentalists are also highly concerned about damage to the river’s ecosystem that the construction would cause.

The Newport Beach City Council and a separate private attorney have threatened to sue if the bridge is deleted from future plans. They argue that OCTA should have done an environmental impact report before removing the bridge from county plans.

The board discussed ways to work with the affected communities and see whether an overall agreement is possible.

Plans for the bridge have been in the works since 1950, but for the last 20 years officials in Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa have talked about taking it out of the county’s master plan.

It’s a “phantom” bridge, OCTA director Peter Herzog told his colleagues Monday. Nonetheless, there are reasons for local planners wanting to keep it on the books.

According to the OCTA board discussion, bridges and other transportation plans are needed by city planners and developers to justify the fast tracking of other projects.

If, for example, an immediate project would cause congestion, planners can still get it pushed through by showing how the congestion will be eased once the future bridges, street widening or other projects in the county master plan are completed.

It’s a way to “make a big project happen,” Huntington Beach Mayor Don Hansen, an opponent of the bridge, said after the meeting. “We’ve all done it.”

— TRACY WOOD

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