If New York can have a subway, Paris the Metro and Chicago The Loop, why doesn’t Orange County have a similar public transportation system or even a better system than it currently has? Well, Orange County Transportation Authority Director and Chair, Peter Buffa, says we do.

“Better is in the eye of the commuter,” Buffa said. “Our freeway system is world-class, as is all of Southern California’s. It’s overwhelmed in the morning and afternoon rush hours, but every metro-area freeway system is. Our public transit system is not world-class, but it surprises people to know that our bus system is the 12th largest in the country.”

Buffa must know, since he has been in the business for a while. For example, for 12 years he served as a councilmember and mayor of Costa Mesa; 11 years as director and chair of the Orange County Transportation Corridor Agencies, a regional agency that built the first modern Toll Roads in California, four years as director and chair of the Orange County Transportation Authority.

Economy Roadblock

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to date for any further progress of OCTA has been slowed by the current economic strains.

“The biggest issue at OCTA is the economy, followed by the economy and then, the economy,” Buffa says.

OCTA lives and dies by sales tax revenues in the form of “Measure M” – a half-cent sales tax measure that funds transportation in Orange County – freeways, major streets, trains and buses, he explains.

“Obviously, with the recession, sales tax revenues are way down,” he shares. “Worse yet, our state funding for transit has been virtually eliminated as a result of the budget meltdown in California. While federal funding will be more limited than in the past, the stimulus package developed by the Obama Administration will be very helpful, especially in the area of high-speed rail, which is finally becoming a reality in this country.”

As always, public transportation does continue to be a hot topic, especially in Southern California where the population continues to explode as does the number of cars on the roads.

“Public transportation or the lack thereof, is a fascinating issue. I happen to be a former New Yorker. In older, denser metropolitan areas like New York, Chicago, London, Paris, and Hong Kong, public transportation is not only a way of life – it’s the only viable way to get around,” Buffa said.

“California is quite the opposite. Our transportation system was built specifically with the automobile in mind. After World War II, automobiles and freeways went supernova and public transportation was viewed as yesterday’s news. Bus systems and rail lines were dismantled as quickly as possible – new freeways and two cars in every driveway became the American Dream, which brings us to the fact that public transportation is also a very Freudian issue.”

Buffa adds that in New York or Paris, there is no class-consciousness connected to a bus or a train.

“It just happens to be how you, and everyone else in town, gets from Point-A to Point-B. But in California, you are your car. It’s an extension of you, an expression of you — a steel, rubber and glass ‘vital organ’ that you can’t live without. That all works fine until the general population of a metropolitan area reaches millions, then tens of millions,” he says.  

Today, more than one out of every 10 Americans lives in California between San Francisco and San Diego, he adds.

“At those numbers, trying to get everyone to and from work or school or wherever every day with the great majority of them driving their own car becomes a fiscal and environmental I.Q. Test,” he says. “It is by far the most expensive and least ‘green’ way to move millions of people around every morning and afternoon.

“In defense of Californians and their environmentally-abusive love affair with their cars, you cannot expect the majority of people to use public transportation the way New Yorkers or Londoners or Parisians do until you have a transit system that approximates the systems in those cities – and that means billions of dollars and decades of designing and building bus systems and rail systems, and especially, high-speed rail systems.”

So, what is the State of California doing to help further OCTA projects?

“Doing to help?” Are you serious? In the midst of its current budget meltdown, the state has virtually eliminated all funding for public transportation. This year alone, we lost almost $30 million in state funding and will lose about $275 million over the next five years, at the same time the economy is in slowing to a crawl and at the very moment we’re trying to develop a true public transit system.”

A Mirror Image Of?

When asked what city should OCTA model itself as, Buffa was quick to respond.

“I think you really have to look to the great cities of Europe and Asia. They have highly integrated, multi-modal systems of freeways and toll roads along with buses, express buses, light rail, commuter rail – especially high-speed rail – which we do not. Again, we’re talking about things that will take decades and billions of dollars.”

But role models aside, while Buffa does enjoy his part-time job as the head of OCTA, there are always the challenges, which include: “Finding the billions of dollars needed to build and maintain a world-class transportation system.”

The writer, Debbie L. Sklar is a 20-plus year journalism veteran residing in Southern California, where she is a writer, columnist and editor for many local, regional and national publications. She is a regular contributor to PublicCEO.com and may be reached via e-mail at DLSwriter@cox.net