Orange County transportation officials face tough choices ahead

The Orange County Transportation Authority may be facing some tough choices by this fall. The agency's dealing with decreased sales tax revenue and a lot less money from the state. KPCC's Susan Valot says the OCTA board heard a couple of reports about that during its meeting in Orange today.

Susan Valot: As the economy falters, people just aren't buying as much as they used to. That means fewer proceeds from sales taxes. And for the Orange County Transportation Authority, that means less money coming in under Measure M, the county's half-cent sales tax to fund transportation projects.

Over its 30-year life, planners expected Measure M to bring in more than $24 billion. But transportation authority chief Art Leahy says he and others have downgraded that figure to a little more than $16 billion.

Art Leahy: Over the longer term, we need to look at what happens with the reduction in the baseline level of revenues. At some point there'll be a recovery. It's not going to be like this forever.

And we'll also need to look at alternative sources of revenues that have come up since then, like the 91 toll lanes and things like that. The fact is, though, we face a lot of risk of the need to potentially reduce or defer some of our freeway projects.

Valot: Some projects already in the pipeline include construction to ease traffic jams on Interstate 5 and add lanes to the 405 Freeway between the 55 and the 605. The transportation authority definitely isn't looking to the cash-strapped state for help.

The new California budget cut $21 million intended for the Orange County Transportation Authority. Its CEO Art Leahy says that cut will probably be permanent. He says the worst case could deliver big cuts to public transportation in Orange County.

Leahy: Well, it could be on the order of 10 to 15 percent of the total OCTA bus system. At the same time, we'll be reducing some of the increases we had planned for Metrolink, beginning next year. So we're going to be struggling to make better use of the resources we have.

Valot: The OCTA's Art Leahy says that struggle will likely mean work furloughs for transportation workers, similar to those the state of California has imposed. He adds that there won't be any raises for the agency's administrative employees next year, either.