OCEANSIDE — Although far from certain that the city can come up with its $1.9-million share of the money, the City Council on Wednesday agreed "in concept" to participate in a cost-sharing program to widen California 78, an increasingly busy highway that is the only major east-west artery in North County.
The action, which came on a unanimous vote, was requested by Rep. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad), who said he needs local governments' commitment to secure $12 million in federal highway funds to widen the road from four to six lanes, estimated to cost $30 million.
Vista, Escondido, San Marcos and Carlsbad had earlier agreed to contribute to the project. The county Board of Supervisors has not expressed formal support for the widening, but Supervisor Paul Eckert said last week that "if all five cities come up with their share, I'm sure the county would go along."
Packard said he was "delighted and heartened that we have 5-for-5 support" and added that he was "confident the county will eventually be in a cooperative mood" and decide to pitch in. The congressman said he could now "press forth vigorously" with his effort to win the federal contribution.
Under Packard's proposal, California 78 would be designated a "demonstration project," thereby becoming eligible for the $12 million in federal highway funds. An additional $7.5 million would be provided by the state, and the balance of the cost would be divided among the five cities and the county.
San Diego Assn. of Governments planners calculated what the cities and county would pay based on the present and future population of each jurisdiction and use of the highway by residents of each area. Oceanside is the largest city along the route.
Despite their decision to participate in the widening, the Oceanside council members Wednesday expressed qualms about several aspects of the plan. Triggering the most debate was the city's share --$1.9 million--the largest amount charged any of the six governments.
"It seems to me that our city and Escondido share similarities (and should perhaps be charged equal amounts)," Councilman Ted Marioncelli said. "We're at the beginning of the freeway and they're at the end."
In addition, Marioncelli suggested that residents of inland cities--whose only major road out of town is California 78--need the widening more and, therefore, should shoulder a greater portion of the cost.
Mayor Larry Bagley agreed that "the various local shares don't seem right."
"But at this point, our main objective is to keep the project alive, keep the federal funding in sight, and keep the state money available," Bagley said, adding that he supports further negotiations on the assessments.
According to the formula, Oceanside would pay $1.9 million; Carlsbad, $825,000; Vista, $1.125 million; San Marcos, $825,000; Escondido, $1.6 million, and the county, $1.125 million.
Some council members also questioned whether local governments should be required to pay for a state highway project.
Councilman John MacDonald answered those doubts with a dose of pragmatism, telling his colleagues, "We may not like the philosophy of paying, but if we don't act it will be gridlock out there before the state gets going."
As North County's population has soared and commercial and industrial development has sprung up along the route, California 78 has become increasingly choked with traffic. Transportation planners predict that if nothing is done, traffic on the highway will be at a standstill by the year 2005.
The mounting accident rate is another concern. California Highway Patrol officials say the number of collisions causing injuries or fatalities on the route is up 30% from last year, compared to an 8% increase for North County highways overall.
While leaders throughout North County are cognizant of the traffic and accident problems on the route and unanimously support widening the highway, coming up with the local funds remains a problem.
Packard said he has directed his aides to work with cities on ways to finance the project. On Wednesday, Oceanside Special Projects Director Dana Whitson cited several possible funding options, including formation of a citywide assessment district, issuance of revenue bonds or a voter-approved increase in the gasoline tax.