Will a wider freeway mean more room for the arroyo toads? Can an added carpool lane help save the Coastal California Gnatcatchers? Could improving on-ramps and off-ramps lead to the preservation of chaparral and oak woodland communities?
Through a unique partnership between Orange County’s environmental community, state and federal wildlife agencies, and the Orange County Transportation Authority’s (OCTA) Measure M2 (M2) program, the answer is yes.
In the last month, approximately 900 acres have been preserved through OCTA’s Environmental Mitigation Program, which protects the county’s natural resources while adhering to the promise made to voters to implement 13 freeway projects as part of M2, a half-cent sales tax for transportation improvements approved in 2006.
The early acquisitions have been made possible with the OCTA board’s leadership and vision in advancing a suite of the most critical projects before the actual start of the M2 sales tax collection. Advancing these projects along with the Environmental Mitigation Program, enabled OCTA to stimulate the economy with construction-related jobs and acquire mitigation properties at a low point in the real estate market, thereby maximizing the amount of properties that would be acquired.
In accordance to the promise made to Orange County voters, approximately 5 percent of the M2 freeway program revenue — estimated at more than $150 million — is being set aside for habitat preservation and restoration throughout the county.
This collaborative endeavor, supported by more than 30 conservation and community groups, represents a new way of thinking in terms of developing freeway projects and mitigating the environmental impacts of the improvements. Using the traditional model, OCTA would have developed 13 separate plans to offset the biological impacts of each freeway project. While effective, the process is time-consuming, costly and a piecemeal approach that is not conducive to the preservation of wildlife and habitat.
Using a proactive, innovative approach, a master agreement was negotiated and executed between OCTA and state and federal resource agencies to provide higher-value environmental benefits such as habitat protection, wildlife corridors and resource preservation in exchange for streamlined project approvals for the freeway program as a whole.
With significant dialogue and input from the environmental community — including the creation of an Environmental Oversight Committee — a process was developed to identify potential properties throughout the county with high biological values. Land owners were then approached to determine whether they were interested in willingly selling their land as part of the program. The properties of interested landowners were evaluated and ranked based on the value of their natural resources and the property’s conservation value in a regional context. A priority list of properties was developed and OCTA is currently in the process of negotiating and purchasing land.
OCTA purchased the first property in late April, 84 acres nestled next to the Cleveland National Forest. This Saddle Creek South property is an iconic California landscape, rich with live oak woodlands, coastal sage scrub, chaparral and riparian habitat. It is also home of two sensitive species: the Coastal California gnatcatcher and the intermediate mariposa lily.
Three more purchases of 296 acres in north Orange County (Hayashi), 399 acres (Ferber Ranch) and 119 acres in southeast Orange County (O’Neill Oaks) have followed as OCTA works to not only plan for the county’s future transportation needs but serves as a steward of our natural resources as well.
Dan Silver of the Endangered Habitats League and a member of the Environmental Coalition that supported the ballot initiative summed it up well: “The Measure M2 Environmental Mitigation Program is a creative partnership that serves interest across the board. Orange County remains a leader in recognizing the importance of open space as vital infrastructure in its own right.”
Seeing a canine passenger on mass transit is not uncommon, but the reasons why a dog might catch the train or hop a bus are varied (remember Eclipse, the Seattle Lab mix that uses the bus, often on her own, to get to the dog park?). Most public transit pooches are working —as K-9 officers or service animals. In the Philadelphia region, other animals — in approved carriers only—are permitted to ride the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s buses, trains and trolleys. However, a new pilot program underway by SEPTA allows registered therapy dogs volunteering at two Philadelphia hospitals to use two designated bus routes to travel to their sites.
To be sure, there is no substitute for offering high-quality bus or rail transit service, but many transit agencies skimp when it comes to marketing, outreach, and education and, as a result, the public often has no idea how good the service may actually be. Buses also have an image problem in many communities, which proper marketing could help address. Witness the huge sums spent by automakers in crafting the image of their automobiles.
The Uber website proudly states that, “Uber is evolving the way the world moves. By seamlessly connecting riders to drivers through our apps, we make cities more accessible, opening up more possibilities for riders and more business for drivers. From our founding in 2009 to our launches in over 200 cities today, Uber's rapidly expanding global presence continues to bring people and their cities closer.” Such hype is common on corporate websites, but when the braggadocio is backed up by an article in the Wall Street Journal that discloses a valuation of $41 billion their ambitious words take on relevance.
As the world changes with the rapid advancement of connected devices and technologies, so must the transportation industry. In a business area where change is sluggish, DOTs across the country must adapt quickly to the evolving technologies that are going to impact their operations and budget. There are at least three technologies that will have immense impact over the next two decades on how we travel and how state transportation departments react to provide mobility — connectedness, big data and automation.
Around the world, artwork of all forms adorns transportation centers, stations and bus shelters. While many of these statues, paintings, mosaics and sculptures are permanently installed as part of a station’s architecture, transportation organizations can use their spaces for art exhibitions that not only make transit hubs more aesthetically pleasing for commuters, but also inspire budding artists. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) recently partnered with two organizations to showcase the artistic talent of youth from the Greater Philadelphia region and around the world.