Pat Ortiz can't remember a time when so much freeway construction was in the works in Orange County. And he likes what he sees.

Ortiz is president of Irvine-based Ortiz Enterprises, a general contractor that has $20 million in contracts for improvements to the Santa Ana (5), Riverside (91) and Costa Mesa (55) freeways.

"Everybody is busy," he says.

Indeed, transportation projects are underway all over Orange County. The most notable is the $1.1 billion widening of the Santa Ana Freeway between the Orange (57) and 91 freeways. There's also the $118 million widening of the 55 between the Garden Grove (22) and 91 freeways.

Meanwhile, a stretch of the 91 that runs through Fullerton to L.A. County will get carpool lanes costing $180 million.

All this is only the beginning of what could be an even larger building boom to beef up Orange County's transportation infrastructure. The Orange County Transportation Authority has estimated it could spend as much as $15.7 billion through 2020 on improvements.

While construction companies say there's often a big gap between what's in the pipeline and what actually gets built, the OCTA projects that it will have $11.7 billion in funding available without any additional taxes.

Add in the $2.5 billion that's been spent on improvements in the past five years, plus the proposed conversion of El Toro Marine Corps Air Station to a commercial airport at an estimated cost of $1.6 billion, and Orange County could see nearly $20 billion in transportation work by 2020.

"I think there are as many transportation projects being planned in Orange County as anywhere in the United States," said Stan Oftelie, president and chief executive of the Orange County Business Council and former CEO of the OCTA.

Even if all the projects are completed, officials are not predicting the end of rush-hour gridlock. That's because by 2020, the county is expected to have 22 percent more residents and 70 percent more jobs than today.

"With those kinds of projections, you don't solve congestion. You help the system work better," said Ron Bates, a Los Alamitos City Council member and first vice president of the Southern California Association of Governments, which is helping to plan the regional transportation network. "We'll continue to be challenged on how to get people to work and to other functions."

Planners believe the picture will get much worse without the projects. Even if everything is built, projections show that rush-hour traffic speed will increase slightly from an average of 25 mph to 26 mph. But if projects are not built, that speed could be reduced to an average of 19 mph.

The money earmarked for the projects through 2020 breaks down like this:

* $5.3 billion to improve the freeway system. This includes $644 million for a toll road to connect San Clemente to the eastern side of Orange County.

* $1.1 billion for the current Santa Ana Freeway widening between the 57 and the 91.

* $390 million to build carpool lanes on the 22, 57 and San Gabriel River (605) freeways.

* $3.5 billion to improve surface streets.

* $2.5 billion for a rail system. This includes a proposed light-rail line from Irvine to Fullerton at an estimated cost of up to $1.8 billion.

* $3.8 billion to beef up the county's bus system. Along with adding more routes and hours of operation, buses will be changed from diesel to natural gas fuel, and OCTA plans to build a second maintenance facility.

Altogether, the projects are estimated to cost $15.7 billion for operating and capital expenditures. The OCTA has already approved $9 billion for current projects.

Funding sources include $2.3 billion from the Measure M half-cent sales tax, $4 billion in state funds and $1.1 billion in federal funds.

Most of the construction firms that stand to benefit are well known in the industry for building freeways, such as E & Y; Yeager of Riverside, MCM Construction Inc. of Sacramento and FCI Constructors of San Diego.

But future contracts for private-sector engineering and architectural firms could be jeopardized by a state Supreme Court ruling that said private firms can obtain work only if engineers at Caltrans are not able to do it. That ruling is similar to the provisions of Prop. 224, which was defeated by state voters in November.

From a practical standpoint, the court's ruling hasn't had much impact yet in Orange County, because OCTA is awarding the work, not Caltrans. But it could affect future contracts and slow the relatively quick pace of improvements in Orange County (compared to the rest of the state.)

Meanwhile, the work in Orange County is drawing attention from a number of quarters. Oftelie said experts from around the country have come to study the retrofitting of bridges on major freeways, the widening of the Santa Ana Freeway, the use of tolls roads, and the elaborate carpool lanes.

"In a lot of ways, Orange County has been a laboratory for highway projects," he said.

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