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Bill Includes California 78 Funds : $12 Million to Widen Clogged Highway Is Part of Package

June 20, 1986|JENIFER WARREN | Times Staff Writer

An effort by Rep. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad) to find federal dollars to widen traffic-clogged California 78 gained steam Thursday when a key congressional subcommittee approved legislation containing $12 million for the project.

The funding, contained in the Surface Transportation Act of 1986, is part of an unusual financing package that Packard hopes will permit the busy highway to be widened from four to six lanes.

Under the funding program, the state, the county and the five cities along the highway would pitch in to come up with an additional $17.5 million necessary to complete the $29.5-million widening.

Although it is a state highway, Packard hopes to win the federal assistance by characterizing the widening as a rare "demonstration project" designed to show the need to improve roads connecting federally financed interstates.

"This is a tremendous victory for North County," said Packard, who has made the widening his top priority this year. "For anyone who has waited long hours in traffic jams on Highway 78, this will be good news."

Vista City Councilwoman Gloria McClellan couldn't agree more.

"That is really great news," said McClellan, who is on a committee of city officials who are exploring ways to come up with local funds for the project.

"Highway 78 is a real bearcat, and since it bisects our town we really feel the brunt of the traffic. A lot of Vistans have a bumper sticker that says 'I hate 78.' I guess that about sums it up."

Once an inviting meandering route stretching 16.5 miles from the coast to Escondido through bucolic scenery, California 78 today is heavily congested, largely because it is North County's only major east-west artery.

As hospitals, colleges and industrial parks have emerged on the farmland that once bordered the highway, the number of cars traveling the route has soared, and now peaks at 80,000 on an average weekday. By the year 2005, the San Diego Assn. of Governments (Sandag) expects that number will climb to 112,000.

The injury-causing accident rate is also inordinately high--it rose 30% in 1985, compared to an 8% increase for North County highways overall--prompting some local law enforcement officials to dub the route "Slaughter Alley."

Despite that scenario, funds for a widening project have been difficult to come by. The state Department of Transportation has not included it in its program, meaning 78 would not be eligible for funds for five years unless the federal demonstration project is approved. And a past bid by Packard to win federal money was killed by President Reagan.

This time around, the congressman embraced a different strategy, winning local support for the funding scheme before making his pitch in Washington. Last year, he sought and received the endorsements of the five cities along the route (Oceanside, Carlsbad, Vista, San Marcos and Escondido) and the county Board of Supervisors.

While the local governments agreed to support Packard's approach in concept, there were no commitments on the specific amount each would contribute.

"We've still got a lot of haggling to do on that one," McClellan said. "But I'm sure we'll come up with enough money somehow. This is too important an opportunity to waste."

Under a tentative breakdown of funding responsibilities proposed by Sandag, the $12 million in federal funds would be matched by a $7.5-million state grant; $1.9 million from Oceanside; $1.6 million from Escondido; $1.125 million each from the county and Vista, and $825,000 each from Carlsbad and San Marcos.

Wednesday's action came in the surface transportation subcommittee of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee. The legislation now proceeds to the full House for a vote.

Gary Maloney, an aide to Packard, said the bill would make the federal funds available by October, 1987.

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