Interview With OCTA Chair Mark Murphy

By:Matthew Cunningham

Orange County Transportation Authority Chairman Mark A. Murphy recently sat down with OC Independent Editor Matthew Cunningham to talk about challenges and opportunities facing the county’s transportation agency. Murphy began his one-year term as chair in December 2021. A lifelong resident of Orange, he has served as mayor of that city since 2018, and also served as mayor from 2000 to 2006. Murphy was first elected to the Orange City Council in 1994, serving until he was elected mayor in 2000, serving in that post until 2006. He was subsequently elected to the city council in 2006, 2012 and 2016.

QUESTION: The I-405 is one of the biggest – if not the biggest – single infrastructure project OCTA has ever taken on. What is the current construction status?  Is the project on time and on budget?

MURPHY: The I-405 is the largest project in the state right now, and it’s largest project in OCTA history. It’s a giant project. And obviously, it’s Costa Mesa to the LA line. There is a second lane that will combine with carpool lanes as well as an additional new lane of free-flow traffic. And there’s also the part that a lot of people do not realize there’s 18 bridges either being replaced or being widened. Half the bridges are done. The other half are on schedule to be done. Overall it’s about 70% completed and on track to open as scheduled in late 2023. And I’m particularly happy to say is it’s on budget at 2.08 billion.

QUESTION: Where does the widening of the 55-freeway stand?

MURPHY: It is right on the tail of the I-405 project. We are going to break ground this summer and expect to complete the project in 2026. It’s adding a regular lane in each direction on the 55 between the I-5 and the I-405, with construction beginning at the 405 and moving north. Also, there will be additional enhancements such as auxiliary lanes to allow traffic to eat more easily get on and off.  It’ increases access to job centers, circulation to get folks to and from work, school, shopping and John Wayne airport. You name it tThe 55 has a means to travel. There’s additional capacity for everybody that’s driving and wants to drive on the road. And for me that isa very important component to this.

QUESTION: Is the goal to extend the 55 widening all the way to the 91 Freeway?

MURPHY: Yes. Obviously, construction is never your best neighbor. And so you do your best to stage and stagger the project so you don’t wind up with more construction fatigue than necessary. There are several projects being phased and all that and they’re done with some intent, as well as funding. And the third part of it obviously, is where Measure M money is committed, then projects are promised to be delivered within a certain time. And I’m happy to say, “promises made, promises kept” – we have no intention changing that track record.

QUESTION: Measure M projects are still on schedule?

MURPHY: Yes. It’s something we hold very important. It impacts the investment community that looks at us, but most importantly, it impacts our promises to the taxpayer. And if you’re not credible with the taxpayers, then the privilege that they’ve given you? You’re never going to see that again. And from a personal standpoint, making a promise and being good to your word is at the core of my being.

QUESTION: What other major freeway construction projects are coming to OC?  When will they begin and when will they be completed and in service?

MURPHY: You have the I-5 South County improvements. That’s a regular lane in both directions between Avery Parkway and Alicia Parkway and extending this the second carpool lane from Alicia to El Toro Road. It also improves some of the access to the local streets to correct some of the challenges that have evolved over time in terms of traffic flows as South County continues to grow. That’s scheduled for completion in 2025.

Looking ahead, there’s design phases on improvements to most of the freeways you can think of: the 91, the 605, the 5, the 57 on the 55 what’s what I can talk more about any of those if you’re interested in.

QUESTION: Regarding the 57. The Orange Crush fix has been done. Is additional work on the 57 planned?

MURPHY: Improvements on the northbound 57 that are scheduled to begin in 2025 – in the Orange area between Orangewood and Katella. That’s the next project in a reasonable timeframe to talk about on the 57.

QUESTION: What does that consist of?

MURPHY: The project will extend a fifth regular lane along a 1-mile stretch of the northbound freeway between Orangewood and Katella avenues, at the border of Orange and Anaheim.  That is a destination area, and there’s likely to be significant development going on a (proposed developments OCVibe and the Angels Stadium), along with just the traffic flow for sports teams, etc. It can be a chokepoint during games or when there are multiple attractions on, so it recognized that as well as continued growth there. It was a need and is one of the promised projects, as well.

We also have I-605 improvements with the Katella interchange. In 2026, we’re scheduled to add a regular lane in each direction of the 55 freeway between the I-5 and the 91.

It’s the orchestration of those and the preparation it takes that is incredibly time-intensive – whether you’re talking about the designs, outreach, discussion with the neighborhoods and the rest, to make sure that’s all ahead of your environmental reviews and the rest. And you phase that all in down to getting project bids during these challenging times with inflation and then the rest, that’s manageable from that end of things, too. And then actually doing the project and sticking to timelines – especially with the range of commitments we’ve made and making sure everything phases in correctly and doesn’t conflict with each other in terms of contributing to circulation challenges. And minimizing those as much as you can.

QUESTION: You mentioned inflation. To what extent are inflation and supply chain issues impacting OCTA projects?

MURPHY: I am happy to report that so far we’re on time and on budget with projects. That is getting more challenging – the post-pandemic challenge of hiring people, the cost of materials have grown dramatically – concrete, steel, all the core things that you use in building roadways and transportation. So, we’re trying to be proactive and it’s a challenge. But we made promises and we’re going to see those promises through.

QUESTION: Recent news about the OC Streetcar has been focused on the Fourth Street Merchants and their issues with the speed of construction.  What is OCTA doing to address their concerns?  What have been the challenges that led to the merchant’s frustration?  Have they now been addressed?

MURPHY: Anytime there’s major construction you try and be as good a neighbor as you can during these things. And frankly, we’ve been working with and continue to listen to the concerns that have been addressed. The Outreach team has been in communication and has been for a long period of time. This is a project that the city of Santa Ana requested.  In 2020, the OCTA budgeted $400,000 into the project that the downtown business associations used to create awareness and outreach for the project. The city of Santa Ana recently approved a million and a half dollars. I know the businesses feel like that’s not near enough. We’re going to continue to figure out ways we can expedite the construction services, but we also were asked not to do all this construction on one phase – so we’re doing what I call hopscotching, which is we’ll build a couple of blocks of the rail, leave a block open so people can get through and then build a couple more blocks. Constructing the streetcar that way takes longer than shutting the street day for X number of days while we put the rail all the way through. But the hopscotching approach is at the request of both local merchants and the city of Santa Ana. And they’ve done a good job of being there and trying to work the issues on a more immediate basis.

At the end of the day, those businesses that can weather the storm here they’re going to be the ones benefitting the most when those streetcars go by, and the people stop. But it’s not lost on me how challenging it is for those businesses, especially coming out of a pandemic. We’d all like it to go faster. There are certain realities there, but we’ve also talked to the contractors about doing extended hours. I know the parking lots downtown are free right now. The city of Santa Ana has put up signage and taken other steps – so all parties are fully cognizant and doing everything possible. But it’s certainly not lost on me that when you have construction on the street in front of you, it’s a challenge to any business.

QUESTION: Is OCTA giving any thought to providing additional relief funds for the merchants?

MURPHY: Well, that’s what the $400,000 was intended for, and certainly from a city standpoint, Santa Ana felt like they wanted to put in more. You know – never say never. But the biggest thing we can do is whatever possible to streamline from now to finish, so we can get circulation back on the road in front of these businesses.  I think that’s going to be more valuable to them than any additional funds in the meantime.

QUESTION: How is OCTA transit ridership (busses and trains) recovering from the pandemic? What do you see for the future of transit in the County? Has OCTA given any thought to a long-term transition away from bus drivers to automated transit, or from large buses to smaller, more nimble transit options?

MURPHY: Prior to the pandemic, boardings were about 120,000 per day. It dropped under 30,000 boardings during the depth of the pandemic. And now we’re at about 85,000 riders a day. The interesting part of that statistic is that 85% of our current riders says OCTA buses as their primary means of transportation. So, these are folks that need our buses to go to school, to go to the doctors, to go to jobs – for the functions of life. We got a study going right now called “Making Better Connections” as to how we can fine tune an extensive system. Obviously, in the denser areas of the system it’s an easier fix than in some of the broader areas – where you look at micro transit services or even seasonal services related to the beach areas. We’re looking at technologies related to different sorts of fuels.  

All these kinds of things contribute to how do you best adapt and make changes. We update our service delivery at least three times a year in reaction to whatever things occur that change that distribution flow.

South County is a tougher answer, and micro transit and some of the more flexible versions of things are absolutely needed so that you’re not running large buses around with nobody inside. It’s a balancing act. It’s evolutionary. Certainly, as the technology base advances will explore how to incorporate more technology into our system. We’ll look at those things as they evolve.

There are interesting technologies even in surface materials for roads that are electrically conductive and might charge electric vehicles in the future. But those are the longer-term type strategies and the rest. But fuels, the size of the vehicles, how you deliver those services and why – those are things we worry about every day. And we try and plan not only for 20 years from now, but for six months from now, a year from now, five years from now, as well, so that we can evolve with them and take advantage of those things wherever we can.

QUESTION: OCTA recently passed a measure making fares free to OC youth a permanent feature. How was that paid for? Is there a sustainable funding source for that benefit?

MURPHY: I’m proud of the success of that program. And that was reinforced recently when we renewed it. We had several young people call in to the board meeting, talking about how important it was for them. Not just for getting to school and back. That’s important, obviously. But the program also opened a whole range of opportunities that they wouldn’t have otherwise.

I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, I always had a way to stay late so I could play sports, or music  or get to school early for a workout or for a music rehearsal.

For some, the only way they can do that is taking the bus system to get to those events. So, keeping the program makes perfect sense. Over a million kids under 18 have taken advantage of Youth Ride Free. And with the price of fuel these days and the cost of operation cars, there’s a benefit that way.

Hopefully, they’ll discover this is a convenient way to do what they need to do, and it translates into a lifelong habit of using public transportation. If we’re wise enough to present a desirable service, folks who use it as a kid growing up will likely see it as their choice moving forward. 

From a financial standpoint, we estimate the program’s cost is $2.2 million a year. We work with Caltrans and the California Air Resources Board to use low carbon transport operation program funds to do that program. I think there’s so much more upside than downside for that level of investment. We tested it on community college districts, and many of those students ride for free these days.

So, it was easy, in my opinion, to make this investment. The funds are out there, so why not make the best use of them and let young people in Orange County have a reliable way to get around?

QUESTION: OCTA and the Anaheim Transportation Network seem to be at odds over proposed transit funding legislation.  What is your perspective on what is at issue?  What do you think the impact is on Anaheim and/or OC transit riders? Is there any real conflict between their missions, or would an all-hands-on-deck approach better serve the public?

MURPHY: Well, I don’t think there’s necessarily a conflict. It’s a recent issue that’s cropped up, and I think better communication amongst all parties involved would probably help the situation. You know, we both have roles to play. You know, ATN for the most part serves hotel guests, the conventions, the tourist components of things. We’ve coexisted for so long, and coordinated and collaborated, so it seems to me that should continue.

90% of ATN traffic, as I understand it last year, is from vacationers, out-of-towners, conventions, etc. They’re not the rest of the services that OCTA provides as an overlap for the city of Anaheim. And I know State Senator Tom Umberg is working on making changes and modifications to his original proposed legislation. But the way it was originally written, it could impact as much as 17% of the overall funding for O. C. Bus. And that isn’t something that OCTA is willing to accept, obviously. So, there’s a collaborative approach since the inception of ATN and we’re happy to continue the current approach. But philosophically, there’s a question of full-service bus, paratransit, etc. versus convention business, and it’s asked in terms of where the funding should come from. I know there have been discussions along those lines. As far as we know, the City of Anaheim is happy with OCTA and in fact, has a member on our board. I see the situation as the need for better communication and collaboration so we can meet our mutual goals.

QUESTION: You cited ATN’s out-of-town ridership, but couldn’t someone also take the position that much of the ridership on Orange County freeways consists of drivers who don’t live in Orange County?

MURPHY: You could, sure. But the difference is ATN riders are folks who are being picked up at convention or resort-based locations and transferred from one to the other, versus OCTA buses that provide full services in Anaheim as well as the rest of Orange County. So, it’s a different mission – and that’s fine It’s a matter of improving collaboration, and regarding funding issues, it’s jointly arriving at a solution rather than it being legislated for us.

QUESTION: What is OCTA’s financial condition? How did the pandemic stay-at-home orders – folks working from home – affect OCTA coffers? How do you, as Chairman, keep on top of the investments made in transportation during your term in office?

MURPHY: I’ve had the good fortune of taking on – both as vice chairman and chairman – an organization that’s in a strong fiscal situation, due to strong strategic management that looks out five and 10 years and 20 years and longer. It’s an envious position to be in. We’ve maintained reserves as matter of policy to deal with economic ups and downs. When the pandemic hit, we had the wherewithal and the financial strength to manage our way through. We do Measure M revenue forecasts every year, and at the beginning of the pandemic, we projected revenues could drop as much as 13.5 percent.  We made a drastic cut in our projections but I’m happy to say that Orange County – as it often does – rebounded much more quickly and was much more resilient than a lot of the experts forecasted. And that became apparent by 2021 and we’ve adjusted our revenue forecast back to roughly $13.2 billion per year, which is just percentage points under what was predicted back in 2019.

We approach things in a business-like manner at OCTA, and it shows up in our ratings with the rating agencies and the rest. From a financial standpoint, we’re prudent in what we do and how we do it. We have a great, proactive staff. We even found opportunities during the pandemic. One day our CEO, Darrell Johnson, was driving home on the 405 on a Saturday and approaching one of our construction areas, and noticed he was practically the only one on the road. So he reached out to the Caltrans district director Ryan Chamberlain and worked on expanding construction hours while traffic is so low on the freeways to capitalize on the circumstances to stay ahead of our project and maybe even finish sooner for the taxpayers. And within a week, we had additional hours and additional people out operating on the 405-construction project. And I think that’s a good example of trying to capitalize on even the toughest of conditions.

QUESTION: What do you see as the big transportation ideas and challenges Orange County will face in the coming years? How is OCTA planning to address that or those challenges?

MURPHY: Well, Orange County will continue to grow and get more dense. Our challenge is to keep Orange County moving and doing it in a balanced way that minimizes impacts on our surroundings.  For many years we’ve been able to do that with freeways and freeway expansion. But there’s only so much land to be able to widen into without getting into buying houses, buying businesses, etc. And there’s really no desire on OCTA’s to do that to continue expanding freeways. So, we have to look at all the options. I mentioned the streetcar and micro transit earlier – those are some alternatives that we look at. We do a long-range transportation plan every four years, and currently, our long-range planning horizon is to 2045. And we’re doing gathering the input from the public input on how they want to get around, what works and what doesn’t for them.

I mentioned the bus system – from an efficiency standpoint, we’re testing hydrogen fuel cell, as well as plug-in electric buses. Right now, we have 10 of each and testing them in terms of viability, maintainability, accessibility, what their lifespans are. We’ve had other agencies tap us on the shoulder, hoping will share those results, which of course we will. That’s another area where not only are we looking out for Orange County, but I think we’re helping the state and other agencies – and vice versa.

Protection of the environment is also important for OCTA. We’ve invested in conservation areas. And we’re doing nature tours for the public on some of those conservation areas. A portion of Measure M funds are directed specifically for that use, along with protecting water quality. And we continue to invest in those things to make sure that not only are we moving OC, but wildlife and their environment are maintained, as well.  I’m really proud of that. It’s a balance, like anything else.

And the biggest thing is the long range planning and exploring alternatives and being able to invest in those alternatives and opportunities as they present themselves. And I’m proud of where OCTA is at and all of those fronts.

It’s a real privilege to be the chairman of the board this year. I had the good fortune of serving as Vice Chair when Supervisor Andrew Do was the Chair. He gave me a lot of latitude and responsibility, which helped me be even better prepared for the job this year. And I’m making a point of providing the same opportunities to our current Vice Chair, Gene Hernandez, who I’m sure follow me as chairman. And since OCTA is based in the City of Orange, my hometown, getting to be mayor of my hometown and chair of OCTA all in one year is a great opportunity.


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