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.

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