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Traffic Flow: It May Be as Good as It's Going to Get

January 31, 1988|DOUGLAS SHUIT | Times Staff Writer

Any Californian who wants to gripe about California's traffic-clogged freeways might do well to start with Bill Bagley. As chairman of the California Transportation Commission, the former state assemblyman is supposed to be the man with the answers.

But, tracked down recently for an interview on a traffic-clogged Orange County freeway, he seemed as frustrated as millions of other California motorists.

"There are no magic answers," Bagley said, maneuvering around a fender-bender that was holding up traffic on the Newport Freeway one recent afternoon. Just moments before, he watched a near-crash caused by what appeared to be a stressed-out driver in a mini-truck who was looking for an edge in the heavy traffic.

Trying to Make a Flight

Keeping one eye on the traffic ahead of him and another on the drama unfolding around him, he glanced nervously at a watch. He had given himself enough time to catch a flight from Ontario, but no matter how much time, it never seems enough on California's freeways. "If I had a magic wand, I'd wave it."

Bagley's frustration, shared with other key state officials, is due in part to the admission that California's traffic problems are here to stay, that the situation today may may be as good as it is ever going to get.

"We have identified $14-billion worth of projects which will simply keep us in a situation where things won't get worse, that is, keep us where we are today," he said.

State officials view 1988 as a pivotal year for the state's transportation system. Voters most likely will be asked to decide two important ballot initiatives designed to pump billions of new dollars into the highway system. But even at that, most of the talk centers on projects designed to maintain the status quo, to keep the gridlock and congestion problems from getting any worse than they already are.

Travel on Highways Rises

State officials say travel on the state's highways rose from 72 billion vehicle miles in 1977 to 102 billion in 1985. They say freeway congestion is increasing faster than the population is growing, even faster than new cars and trucks are appearing on the freeways. State planners figure that there will be 6 million more cars and trucks on the highways in California by the year 2000, enough to just about squeeze into all those new lanes on the drawing boards.

Phillip D. Perry, assistant deputy director of the California Department of Transportation, said during a recent interview: "We are at the stage now where it is basically impossible to build ourselves out of congestion. If you take into account just the dollars alone, it is almost impossible.

"But it also takes awhile to build a freeway or expand one. By the time you finish doing it, the demand has reached the point where it's practically filled again."

Deukmejian's Proposal

Bagley, a personable veteran of the state's political wars for more than 25 years, is out around the state, hoping to drum up political support for Gov. George Deukmejian's proposed $2.3-billion highway funding program that calls for a $1-billion bond issue this year and a $1.3-billion bond issue in 1990.

Even though he heads the commission that oversees the state's 15,200-mile freeway network and Caltrans' annual $3.5-billion budget, his insider's knowledge does not help him once he gets behind the wheel. He resorts to the same shortcuts Californians have been using for years.

He schedules the commute from his Marin County home to his San Francisco law office around the freeway rush hour.

And he knows shortcuts to take when he drives to Sacramento, like weaving through Standard Oil Co. storage tanks near the Richmond Bridge.

The one-time assemblyman advised: "Get to know the local byways in order to avoid freeways."

As part of the answer to the freeway problem, Deukmejian, Bagley and other Republicans are working to place on the June ballot the governor's plan to raise $1 billion for the transportation system through the issuance of short-term general obligation bonds.

If the measure ultimately gets on the ballot, it would represent a historic turn. Transportation in California has always been funded by so-called user fees, like the tax on gasoline and truck weight and motor vehicle license fees, and it has been financed on a pay-as-you-go system.

The governor's proposal is a departure in that general obligation bonds are paid off with general state tax revenues and the payoff is over a period of years.

But for just that reason, it has aroused opposition from Democrats in the Assembly.

Assembly Democrats say the governor's program means that public schools and other state programs would have to start competing for dollars with the costly transportation system.

Rival Bond Measure

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