A host of transportation improvements are coming to Orange County over the next year – focused largely on freeway widenings and a streetcar in Santa Ana – that officials say will make it easier to get around town.

But some say there needs to be more of a focus on increasing bus service and safer infrastructure for bike riding and walking.

In an interview with Voice of OC, Orange County’s top transportation official said his agency has $4 billion in transportation projects underway – largely funded by OC’s half-percent sales tax known as Measure M2 or OC Go.

“It’s a big thanks to the voter-approved measure [Measure] M2 half-cent sales tax,” said Darrell Johnson, CEO of the Orange County Transportation Authority.

About half of that spending – roughly $2 billion – is on a massive, ongoing 405 freeway project to add a toll lane, convert the carpool lane into another toll lane, and add one no-cost lane that’s open to all cars.

The lanes are expected to open near the end of this year, after about five years of construction, and allow drivers the option to go between Seal Beach and Costa Mesa at the speed limit during rush hour if they pay the toll.

The 405 project involves replacing 18 bridges, improving traffic signals, pedestrian improvements and adding bike lanes on the bridges, Johnson said.

However, the bike lanes are not protected, he noted after a follow-up question from Voice of OC.

All of the major highway projects are specified by the M2 sales tax voters approved in 2006, he added.

“Keeping those promises to the voters is really really critical,” Johnson said.

More Pedestrian, Bicycle and Bus Access? 

Some would like to see greater investments in pedestrian, bicycle infrastructure and public bus operations – saying it would help reduce injuries and traffic congestion from cars as Orange County’s housing becomes denser.

Kris Fortin, an transportation advocate with the nonprofit Santa Ana Active Streets, said the 405 widening project went forward at a time the bus service was being cut back.

“We’re subsidizing a lot, whether it’s through parking, or freeways,” he said.

“But then we won’t subsidize to a full range – what we call active transpiration – things like bike lanes, walkable streets or [a] financially supported high frequency public transportation system.”

By not investing more in active transportation, Fortin said, “the real costs are lost lives … lost lives of people who are killed on their road while walking or biking,” as well as more road congestion. 

Getting hit by a car while walking or biking is among the most common causes of death for school-age children in Orange County, according to relevant CDC and state traffic collision data reviewed by Voice of OC.

[Read: 8-Year-Old’s Death Prompts Tough Questions For OC Leaders About Failing Kids At Dangerous Intersections]

Fullerton College political science professor Jodi Balma noted a shift in the type of transportation would mean big changes, since much of OC’s city planning was designed around cars without many centralized downtowns.

“E-bikes are incredible, and for people with relatively short commutes that would be a great alternative [to cars] – except there are no bike paths to safely,” Balma said.

“We’re not built for pedestrian life, we’re not built for bicycles, we’re not built for public transportation. We have developed all [land use] patterns based on individual car use,” Balma said of OC’s traditional city planning approach.

Johnson noted OCTA doesn’t have land use authority – which instead falls to cities – and that any changes will take time.

He also acknowledged the push by residents and activists for a bigger focus on public transportation and biking.

“There is a desire to immediately change past decisions made decades ago,” Johnson said. “Those things can’t be changed overnight.”

The convenience of cars still outweighs that of transit in Orange County among people who have driving as an option, he said.

Fortin said it’s time to look at things like reforming OC’s sales tax for transportation so that it invests in bus operations, like LA County’s transportation sales tax does.

Doing so, however, would likely require approval countywide from voters.

Other OC Transportation Projects 

On the 5 freeway in South County, a couple of lanes are being added in each direction from El Toro Rd. to the 73 toll road. And they’re extending the carpool lane from the El Toro Y (where the 405 and 5 meet) south to Alicia Parkway and improving on and off ramps.

These projects – which total $600 million – are a “bottleneck remover” that should help traffic flow better, Johnson said.

The agency also is spending $400 million to add a new carpool lane in each direction on the 55 freeway between the 405 and the 5 – a stretch of freeway plagued with traffic after 2 p.m.

That helps prepare for a future where the lanes could become toll lanes or limited to higher numbers of people carpooling in each vehicle, Johnson said.

Another major project is the OC Streetcar, which will connect the Santa Ana train station to Downtown Santa Ana and Harbor Blvd. in Garden Grove.

Construction started in 2018, and its price tag has ballooned from $300 million to $510 million.

By the end of this year, officials plan on testing out the streetcars, with service slated to start in early 2024, Johnson said.

Officials also have been planning to restore more public bus service during changes this month, June and October, he said. The changes this month are expected to add express bus service on Main Street in Santa Ana.

How much bus service gets added depends on how much demand for more service there is from bus riders, Johnson said.

The bus service expansions are expected to focus on a “core” group of cities like Santa Ana, Anaheim, Huntington Beach, Garden Grove and Tustin, he added.

While bus service ground to a halt in November due to a maintenance worker’s strike, Johnson said he doesn’t see any further such service stops on the horizon – since bus workers now have labor contracts that run a couple more years.

He also noted warnings about a major federal and state funding gap to keep pace with growth in demand for bus service – unless the state Legislature or Congress approves new ongoing money to pay for bus operations.

Fortin says it’s time to look at local funding solutions to help cover that gap.

As for cities that are working on making things safer for people walking and biking, Fortin credited Costa Mesa – the only OC city with an active transportation coordinator on staff – and Santa Ana, which used to have one.

Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento, who sits on OCTA’s board and represents Santa Ana and much of Anaheim – said he wants better public transportation options.

“As a director on OCTA, I will continue to advocate for a safe and reliable public transportation system that serves almost 60% of all bus riders living and working in District 2,” he told Voice of OC.

Making OC truly accessible for people walking and biking will require rethinking how new housing developments are designed, Fortin said.

“Every time I walk by one of these new apartment buildings, I actually call them ‘people warehouses,’” Fortin said of newer, denser housing complexes in OC.

“They’re designed in a way to store people, but there’s nothing going on at the street level,” he added.

Instead, people could have a “dry cleaner, your bakery, your restaurantes, right next to you so you don’t have to [always] drive.”

He encouraged residents to try riding the bus or biking on roads to better understand the realities of the current infrastructure.

“Use the bus, use that voice and that experience to then call on your elected officials to make bus riding better.”

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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