Fruitful Times for Orange County Transportation
Widening a major highway through several cities, and putting tolls on it? The expected result: public disapproval and lawsuits. But not if you’re the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA). When you’re OCTA, “the environmental community supported it from Day 1,” recalls Darrell Johnson, CEO of the Southern California agency.
Skeptical cities were won over, too. Adolfo Ozaeta, city traffic engineer for the city of Westminster, notes that one alternative listed for the $1.9-billion Interstate 405 widening would have required acquiring more than 100 parcels from the city. “Through OCTA’s public participation process ... today we are constructing this alternative which includes the permanent acquisition of zero homes and businesses. It speaks volumes as to the manner in which OCTA does business. We are constructing a project that has countywide support.”
The I-405 widening, being built by a joint venture of OHL USA Inc. and Astaldi Construction Corp. is just one of the highlights of the agency’s ambitious 10-year capital program, which also includes a planned $407-million, 4.15-mile streetcar project in Santa Ana. Fueled by voter approval of OC Go, which extends upon a bond measure that transformed the county’s transportation system over the last 20 years, OCTA is riding high on public trust and collaboration with its public and private partners. It is also ENR California’s 2019 Owner of the Year.
The current agency was established in 1991, out of six separate entities. Then, the agency “was focused on planning of the system,” says Johnson. Now, he says, “We’ve evolved into a delivery entity. It translates into other values that haven’t changed—integrity and customer focus—from bus rider to pedestrian to visitor.”
In 1990, voters approved a sales tax increase that raised $4 billion over 20 years for Measure M, which was renewed in 2006 for another 30 years.
Most Measure M freeway projects were completed in the program’s first 10 years. This timetable enabled adding another project—the widening of the Garden Grove Freeway (State Route 22). In total, Measure M delivered 192 lane miles of freeway capacity.
During the last two decades, 170 of Orange County’s busiest intersections were improved with additional turn lanes, improved signal operations and other safety enhancements. This resulted in a 10% decrease in intersection congestion, according to OCTA.
Measure M also brought Metrolink rail service to Orange County in 1994. Today, Metrolink provides service on three Orange County lines, covering 68 route miles with 11 stations and accounts for 4 million annual passenger trips.
“For 30 years, Orange County was primarily a car community,” notes Kevin Haboian, chief business development officer with HNTB, a consultant with OCTA. “Now you can get to many places in Southern California via train. It was the evolution of OCTA in meeting the needs of the community.”
In 2017, the extension of Measure M was rebranded as OC Go. By 2041, the OC Go Transportation Investment Plan program should deliver more than $13.1 billion worth of transportation improvements.
“We delivered on every promise,” says Johnson. “It allowed us in 2006 to ask for a new measure for 2011-2041—and we have a lot of requirements, including a taxpayer oversight committee. Every three years, there is an independent review to see if we are delivering.”
With one such review completed and positive this year, OCTA is well into its 10-year plan adopted by the board last fall. “What’s important is that we’re pretty conservative, not aspirational in our delivery plan,” says Johnson. By 2026, OCTA will invest $1 billion into local street improvements, $4.3 billion in highways, $1 billion in rail and transit and $40 million in environmental mitigation and water quality runoff improvements. “We have 42 miles of coastline, and we take it very seriously,” says Johnson.
One of the key factors in acquiring buy-in into the I-405 widening, which will improve 16 miles between the SR-73 freeway in Costa Mesa and I-605 near the L.A. County line and add toll express lanes, is OCTA’s open space mitigation program. For the project, the agency acquired 1,300 acres to be set aside as green space. “We set up an endowment for long-term management of the properties,” says Johnson. “It’s about not piecemealing your mitigation.”
The project will replace 18 bridges, improve arterial connections, offer toll options and create better bike and pedestrian paths. “We call it the Freeway of the Future,” says Johnson. “It sounds a little corny, but in a congested urban corridor your footprint is only so wide theoretically. There is a practical limit. How to deal with it and make it work better? How do we make this right from Day 1?”
The agency invited extensive public input from the beginning. “I’ve always admired their model of working in a collaborative fashion to deliver projects,” says Haboian. “The current project is a process that started in the 2000s with planning studies. It evolved over time with public support that varied. They went through a process that wasn’t just one or two meetings—it was a period of years of educating board members, local cities and DOTs to craft a solution that met not only regional needs but a community’s needs.”
OCTA ultimately reached agreements for temporary easements on 288 properties and only one ROW acquisition, says Johnson. OCTA worked with the California Dept. of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration on a program called Sign-in 60. “The property owner agrees [to an easement] in 60 days, and gets a 20% bonus on property values. We might ask for someone’s portion of backyard for five years, that’s valued at $100,000—they get $120,000,” says Johnson. “We recognize that this is taxpayer dollars, so we treat taxpayers appropriately and fairly.”
OCTA’s long-term multimodal sensibilities are also apparent in the streetcar project, which received a $149-million Full Funding Grant Agreement from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) last fall and a March 4 Notice to Proceed to Walsh Construction. “Half of the alignment is in existing unused railroad right-of-way, which we acquired 20 years ago and held in reserve,” says Johnson.
Mark McLaren, vice president with HDR Inc., notes that “this was the first modern streetcar project to get a New Starts grant rather than a Small Starts. New Starts is a more stringent program for projects with a higher price tag. The fact that this was the first modern streetcar to achieve that goal is a testament to the sound planning that OCTA participated in.”
OCTA is also participating in new technologies that may help maximize existing infrastructure It launched a partnership with Waze to manage traffic during I-405 construction. “When the road closes and someone uses Waze, it will populate the detour,” Johnson says. The agency also launched an on-demand microtransit shared-van test pilot in certain zones.
Moreover, the agency oversees a city stakeholder group to prepare for the impact of automated vehicles on major county corridors, says Ozaeta. “Through OCTA, 34 traffic engineers get together twice a year to make decisions to be ready for connected vehicles. It would not be possible without OCTA leadership.”