2009 Year in Rearview

Because of the economic recession, 2009 will go down as a difficult year for all of us. But we have risen to confront those pressing challenges and delivered for the people of Orange County.

Here are our top 10 transportation stories as we look in our rearview mirror of 2009.

What do you think were the top stories of 2009 and your predictions for 2010?

No. 1

Shovels Break Ground on Riverside Freeway

Underneath a banner that proclaimed "Getting to Work," officials and constructions workers grabbed shovels in November to break ground on the $59.5-million project that will relieve congestion and ease a chronic traffic bottleneck along the Riverside Freeway (SR-91).

This groundbreaking event signaled the long-awaited start of Orange County's largest federal stimulus transportation project that will build a new 6-mile eastbound lane from Anaheim to Corona.

The widening project will add capacity on the eastbound SR-91 freeway between the Eastern Toll Road (SR-241) and the Corona Freeway (SR-71).

"This project was ready to move forward when the funding for construction dried up. If it weren't for the federal funds through the stimulus program, this project would not be moving forward today," said OCTA Board Member Curt Pringle. "This is a huge benefit to our entire community. This investment will have a huge impact on many lives."

The project is funded primarily with $47.9 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The Riverside County Transportation Commission (RCTC) provided additional state funding of $5 million and OCTA contributed $6.6 million from 91 Express Lanes toll revenues.

No. 2

Bus Service Reductions Necessary To Offset Budget Crisis

Due to major cuts in state funding and significant drops in sales tax and fare revenues, the OCTA board of directors voted in November to eliminate 150,000 annual hours of bus service beginning in March 2010 through a combination of eliminating routes, reducing bus frequency, restructuring routes and reducing trips.

"Everybody has been affected by these changes, seniors, people riding ACCESS buses, students from high school to college, mothers with children," Director Art Brown said. "This is something the board does not want to do. If we had our way, we wouldn't cut a minute of bus service."

The board action means that since September 2008, OCTA has reduced 20 percent of bus service — a total of 383,000 annual revenue vehicle hours — to bring service in line with available revenue. OCTA faces a more than $330 million shortfall over the next five years.

No. 3

High-Speed Rail Plan Goes Full Speed

From vision to reality, high-speed rail in California and the nation took off full-speed ahead in 2009.

After the passage of Prop 1A last year, the California High-Speed Rail Authority had a major edge with public support to move forward. Then came the $8 billion available from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). With OCTA's $7 million contribution to environmental work on the Anaheim to Los Angeles segment, high-speed rail gained a significant lead over any other segment in the nation, and stands a good chance to receive stimulus funds.

California requested $4.7 billion in ARRA funds for the entire Anaheim to San Francisco system. The Anaheim to Los Angeles segment could receive up to $2 billion, which would be matched with funds from Prop 1A for a fully funded project.

The 27-mile segment would connect to Anaheim via a new transit center, the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center. The station is currently in the environmental phase with construction anticipated to begin in 2011 and the station operational in mid-2013.

No. 4

Goodbye Art Leahy, Hello Will Kempton

The OCTA family said goodbye to Art Leahy at the end of March as he left his post as OCTA's CEO to head the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

A few months later, OCTA welcomed the former head of Caltrans, Will Kempton as he took the reins as the new CEO in August.

Kempton, a 35-year veteran of the transportation industry, brings to OCTA a broad understanding of transportation programs and policies that span the ranks of government from local to the federal level.

"I am impressed with this organization, the board and its employees," said Kempton during an information session in his first week as CEO. "I come to OCTA with my eyes wide open, this agency has a great can-do attitude. The board members are terrific. They are engaged and involved. I am excited about the opportunity to serve in Orange County."

No. 5

Bus Fares Increase Due to Economic Short

The OCTA board of directors voted unanimously to raise bus fares beginning in January 2009.

Regular bus fare increased by a quarter to $1.50 a trip, day passes went up $1 to $4, a one-way senior trip increased 10 cents to 60 cents and senior day passes increased 25 cents to $1.25.

"The OCTA has experienced a 185-percent increase in fuel costs since 2005, and the agency's bus operating budget has experienced an $18-million shortfall," said Chris Norby, former chair of the OCTA board.

"That gap could increase to more than $30 million, depending on whether the state's multi-billion dollar budget gap is resolved."

No. 6

Keeping Pedestrians Safe - Undercrossing Opens in Orange

A new pedestrian undercrossing at the Orange Depot opened in August to pedestrians. The undercrossing allows passengers safer access to trains without having to cross the railroad tracks.

The city of Orange and OCTA hosted a community celebration to commemorate the opening and celebrate the city's important historic milestones depicted on a art instillation in the undercrossing.

"Between 1,500 and 2,000 people use that station every day," Director Carolyn Cavecche said. "Safety is an important issue for Metrolink, OCTA and the city of Orange," who worked together to complete a much-needed safety improvement to historic Old Towne Orange.

Crews constructed the $8-million underpass on budget and delivered the safety enhancement in just over one year.

No. 7

Orange County Sign Unveiled on Santa Ana Freeway

Are we there yet? If you're heading south into Orange County on the Santa Ana Freeway (I-5), the question just got a whole lot easier to answer. OCTA unveiled a new monument sign in July welcoming visitors and signaling to locals that they have left Los Angeles and are in Orange County.

"Orange County has long ago broken away from its rural and suburban roots and transformed into a distinct metropolitan area and the monument sign is an excellent way to show the unique character of our county," said OCTA Chairman Peter Buffa.

Standing nearly 20 feet tall, the sign was installed as part of the I-5 Gateway Project. OCTA is among 48 agencies around the state that are participating in Caltrans' gateway monument pilot project, which aims to define and signify the character of individual locations throughout the state.

No. 8

Imperial Highway Grade Separation Completed

Completed in December, nearly one year ahead of schedule, the Imperial Highway (SR-90) grade separation project widened and separated Imperial Highway from the existing railroad at the Esperanza Road and Orangethorpe Avenue intersection in Anaheim and Yorba Linda.

The grade separation eliminates wait time caused by passing trains for the 46,000 drivers that use the road every day.

The community has benefited from the project with improved pedestrian accessibility and reduced noise because trains will no longer routinely sound their horns as they pass through Imperial Highway.

Imperial Highway is the first among multiple grade separation projects occurring in the county during the coming years.

No. 9

OCTA Welcomes K-9 Transit Cop 'Foose'

Foose, a bomb-sniffing dog with the Orange County Sheriff's Department, became part of the first K-9 unit for OCTA in February.

The 2-year-old chocolate Labrador was brought in to work for OCTA thanks to the Department of Homeland Security and a $25,000 grant. Foose's mission: to sniff out suspicious packages on buses and rails. The transit K-9 unit also assists with other bomb-squad activity throughout the county.

Sheriff's officials say that bomb threats are not a big problem in Orange County, but that the new K-9 unit would help make the sheriff's department more visible. Foose and his partner, Deputy Timm Pusztai, started working together last December.

No. 10

Technology Improves Communications for OCTA

In the past year, OCTA has harnessed creative ways to reach customers through new technologies.

In November, OCTA launched Text 4 Next, enabling bus riders to use their cell phones to get the next three scheduled times the bus will arrive at their stop.

The OCTA Web site received a makeover in September, with improved navigation and new interactive tools. By providing improved navigation along with detailed information on all projects and programs, customers will find it easier to access information about their transportation needs.

Social media played an important part in OCTA projects this year. From creative messaging to providing media coverage at the SR-91 groundbreaking event, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were cost-effective tools that conveyed important messages to OCTA's customers and stakeholders.

Public Engagement: Clumsy Fingers, Steady Hand

It’s pretty easy for me to get excited about social media because it’s about the core things that I care about – communications and relationships.

I’ve been in the public relations profession for more than 15 years on both the government and business side, and have experienced firsthand how social media is transforming how we communicate with each other.

As businesses are quickly adapting to the new landscape and figuring out how to utilize social media as part of marketing communications, government is following suit. At least, that’s the prevailing thought.

An argument can be advanced that government or the presidential campaign of Barack Obama fully employed and integrated social media tools – Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – into a powerful political arsenal against John McCain last year.

Upon capturing the White House thanks to a surge in young voters who overwhelmingly broke for the Obama camp by a 2-to-1 margin, the social media savvy team delivered on their change mantra, promising accountability, openness and transparency. And in doing so, they shined the public light on an all-too bureaucratic at best and secretive process at worst.

The White House created another YouTube video that featured its new media director, Macon Phillips, sharing ways the federal government is using social media as a resource tool for citizens.

“There is so much potential for how government uses the Web. But it won’t be realized unless you step up and participate,” Phillips exclaims. “So join your government at their Web sites and blogs, through videos and photos, in social networks, widgets and so much more.”

But then the brakes came on July 24 when White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs acknowledged that the staff were blocked from Twitter. Gibbs even went further to say he did not Twitter and did not know why the executive office chose to block the popular social media site.

At least Americans outside the Oval Office had access to the official @WhiteHouse and @BarackObama Twitter accounts although their own staff from the inside did not.

The news hit home for me at the Orange County Transportation Authority, where I work as the department manager of public communications and media relations. After demonstrating the power and cost-effectiveness of social media, our communications team gained access to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media sites. But other employees did not have access to the same information we were sharing with our stakeholders, the news media and the general public via social media.

President Obama’s trip to China in November took on new meaning during a familiar American-style townhall meeting in the closed-society of the People’s Republic of China.

The question making headlines came from the U.S. Embassy Web site and was read by Jon Huntsman, U.S. ambassador to China. “In a country with 350 million Internet users and 60 million bloggers, do you know of the firewall?" Huntsman read. "And second, should we be able to use Twitter freely?'

'I have never used Twitter. My thumbs are too clumsy to type in things on the phone.'

In a country where the government censors Web sites and blocks Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, here is President Obama’s response: "I have never used Twitter. My thumbs are too clumsy to type in things on the phone. But I am a big believer in technology, and I'm a big believer in openness when it comes to the flow of information. I think that the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes, because then citizens of countries around the world can hold their own governments accountable. They can begin to think for themselves. That generates new ideas. It encourages creativity."

The president continued by saying that he has "always been a strong supporter of open Internet use. I'm a big supporter of noncensorship. This is part of the tradition of the United States that I discussed before, and I recognize that different countries have different traditions. I can tell you that in the United States, the fact that we have ... unrestricted Internet access is a source of strength, and I think should be encouraged."

He concluded to the crowd of 400 hand-selected students from China’s leading universities: "I should be honest, as president of the United States, there are times where I wish information didn't flow so freely because then I wouldn't have to listen to people criticizing me all the time … I think people naturally ... when they're in positions of power sometimes think, 'Oh, how could that person say that about me,' or 'That's irresponsible.' … But the truth is that because in the United States information is free, and I have a lot of critics in the United States who can say all kinds of things about me, I actually think that that makes our democracy stronger and it makes me a better leader because it forces me to hear opinions that I don't want to hear. It forces me to examine what I'm doing on a day-to-day basis to see, am I really doing the very best that I could be doing for the people of the United States."

It wasn’t his candor of the free-flow of information (that we often take for granted as Americans), but the response that he doesn’t Twitter that caught my attention. His disclosure became a red-hot trending topic on Twitter. I also was perplexed at the huge disconnect between the White House ban of Twitter on its staff and the president’s rhetoric as he lectured the Chinese students in Shanghai on how access to information has made U.S. democracy stronger.

Are we really to believe the avid user of BlackBerry and tech-savvy president doesn’t Twitter because he has clumsy fingers? Does he not know that one can tweet from a regular-sized keyboard on a computer? And what are we to make of those highly personal posts from his @BarackObama Twitter account with more than 2.7 million followers:

· The morning of the Nobel Peace Prize announcement, he simply wrote: “Humbled”

· On Thanksgiving Day, he tweeted: “From my family to yours — Happy Thanksgiving.”

· “Michelle receives this year's White House Christmas tree yesterday. Watch the video: http://bit.ly/4o90RN” was the last tweet on Monday, Nov. 30.

Does this administration really think it can fool Americans, especially the generations that been bombarded with marketing and advertising campaigns most of their lives that they can smell insincerity a mile away? How open, transparent or authentic is this administration if they encourage open access to government and employ ghost-twitterers to get that message out without the benefit of public disclosure, and yet the president’s spokesman doesn’t utilize social media because he said we already see enough of him during news briefings?

But the true challenge is to continue to deliver on that promise of change in how government engages with its citizens

No matter what you think about the president, most people acknowledge that he and his team tapped into technology and harnessed the power of social media to maximize public engagement. One public relations practitioner at a recent national gathering of PR professionals even said that President Obama will be best known in history for unleashing the power of technology and bringing it into the hands of ordinary citizens to do extraordinary things.

But the true challenge is to continue to deliver on that promise of change in how government engages with its citizens. Perhaps the national setting inspires change, but its day-to-day implementation best happens at the local level in communities across America such as in Orange County. Tip O’Neill, the late speaker of the U.S. House, famously asserted, “All politics is local.” In today’s setting, it may be appropriate to say that all action is local.

I’m excited to come to Washington, D.C. for Government 2.5 to share our local story on our challenges in harnessing the power of social media, what we did to overcome numerous obstacles to build and sustain a successful new program called “Public E-volvement.”

Unlike the official White House Twitter account with more than 1.5 million followers that responds to only 2 percent, we’re doing better in Orange County albeit with a smaller but growing 15,000 followers. OCTA is responding to people 64 percent of the time. We’re trying to engage the public and building our numbers. And we’re working hard and gaining a following of other governments and public agencies to follow suit.

Abraham Lincoln said it best in the Gettysburg Address: “…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

It’s up to all of us to read, listen, view, comment, disagree, share, participate and engage at the level of government where we can see tangible results – in the backyards of communities across America.

And it’s equally important for innovative employees in government to be brave and bold in contrast to the comfort of the status quo and actively do adventurous work for the public good – even with clumsy fingers.