ORANGE, Calif. — Over a 31-year career, Orange County’s transportation chief executive Darrell E. Johnson never thought he’d see this kind of money.
With the Monday signing of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, the Orange County Transportation Authority will likely see an additional $1 billion spread over the next five years.
But the precise figure the department will receive depends on to-be-determined guidelines for some federal programs, including extra money allotted for rail projects. About $100 billion will be available from the Federal Transit Administration. If the OCTA wants a piece, it’ll have to compete with like agencies from across the nation.
With this much money, state, county and city administrators expect there’s enough to go around.
Johnson studied the Federal-Aid Highway Act of Dwight Eisenhower and the massive cash transfusions it provided.
“I don’t think anybody thought we would see that again. It’s a game changer. It’s generational,” Johnson said.
“Ike’s” 1956 infrastructure money provided for 41,000 miles of highway. Eventual tweaks and taxes on gas, tires and buses accumulated enough money in a federal trust for the government to assume 90% of the costs of the new projects.
Biden’s administration aims to reclaim a spirit of investment in public infrastructure, which it says has been in decline since the 1960s.
The more than $1 trillion is the latest in a string of big investments pushed for and signed by the Biden administration. Congressional arguments centered around the relative breadth of the bill with early drafts stretching the definition of “infrastructure.” Revisions and cuts have led, now, to a pot of money that will provide at least $10 billion to the state of California for roads, bridges and even to help fund its mission to reduce emissions.
State emissions goals ask transportation agencies to shift to zero-emissions bus fleets by 2040. The OCTA has already begun to explore its options with two pilot programs that test 10 hydrogen buses and 10 electric buses respectively. Johnson said whichever type works out best will eventually be bought en masse with help from federal dollars. Money has already been earmarked, but new money, he said, could greatly accelerate the transformation.
That new money will have to be applied for and could also help the county expand its light rail. The project, a $423 million expense, is slated to begin operations in 2023. Now, there’s optimism that project could be expanded in hopes of further reducing emissions and the daily crawl of rush-hour traffic.
But Johnson and officials of local municipalities are still waiting for information. While some money will make its way directly to cities and counties, other money will be handed down from Sacramento.
Other programs are still materializing, Johnson said, who awaits more information about money for electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Thus far, many of those new charging locations have been bankrolled by the state and certain local municipalities. Whether the county will get involved in building more is part of what Johnson expects to learn in the coming months.
Many cities in Orange County have already begun to pivot toward green emissions standards passed down from the state. Irvine has already put in place hundreds of electric vehicle charging stations — with plans for more — and cities like Laguna Beach have been looking into switching city vehicles over to carbon-neutral versions.
Anaheim, the largest city in the county with about 350,000 people, said it’s looking forward to updating and upgrading roads and neighborhoods in advance of billions in expected investment in entertainment. Like other cities, it’s waiting on what money will be available and how programs like the electric vehicle charging stations will roll out.
“I think it might be too soon for us to get that granular,” said Erin Ryan, a spokesperson for the city of Anaheim.
Money from the infrastructure bill is expected to appear in the OCTA budget next summer, with receipt of funds anticipated for October.
Once the money does land, the impact it will have will be measured in decades.
“The benefits are going to be with us a long time,” Johnson said.