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43% Southland Population Jump Seen by 2020


Raising questions about how to accommodate growth, a new report forecasts that the population of a six-county Southern California region will increase about 43%--to about 22.35 million--by 2020.

The population of Orange County is expected to reach 3.24 million during the period, an increase of 25%.

A continuing strong birth rate in the region, particularly among Latinos, will be the main cause of the growth, forecasters said.

The most dramatic percentage increase, 169%, is expected in northern Los Angeles County, including Lancaster, Palmdale, Santa Clarita and unincorporated High Desert areas, according to the study, recently approved by the Southern California Assn. of Governments. The report's projections for 2020 all use 1994 as the base year.

Western Riverside County areas, such as Moreno Valley, Hemet and Temecula, also are seen as boomtowns. The number of residents there is predicted to more than double as families continue to move to outlying suburbs in search of cheaper housing.

An extra 6.7 million people in Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Riverside, San Bernardino and Imperial counties will be the equivalent of "adding two Chicagos to Southern California," the report said.

The city of Los Angeles alone will have 4.89 million residents, a 34% rise, by 2020, the report said. San Diego County was not included in the area studied.

Analysts warn that such growth will raise many concerns about transportation, air pollution, water resources, schools and general quality of life.

If the report's projections are accurate, "then we are in deep, deep trouble," said John F. Dean, Orange County superintendent of schools.

"Our schools are jammed today," Dean said, adding that without major bond issues to pay for new facilities, the future could be dire.

"Our primary problem is lack of schools and no money to build them, even if we had the room," Dean said. "Our No. 1 concern today is classrooms for the students--you can't turn them away when they come to the door, you have to make room for them someplace."

Esmael Adibi, director of the Anderson Center for Economic Research at Chapman University in Orange, agreed that the major test of Orange County's ability to deal with growth will be in the schools.

"That's the only thing that makes me concerned," he said, "because if we do not provide adequate education for these newborns, then when they enter the labor force in 20 years they will not be highly skilled, and that's not positive. To me, public education is the most important element."

But if that challenge can be met, Adibi said, the population growth could be positive.

"An increase in population means an increasing labor force, which means more production of goods," he said. "And if economic conditions are healthy, there would be more tax revenue to provide additional services."

Mark Pisano, executive director of SCAG, said, "The fundamental issue, without a question, for Southern California is: Can we put together the wherewithal to support the growth that we anticipate and is coming?"

Of particular concern, he said, is that many new jobs will be in parts of Orange and Los Angeles counties that are far from new homes in outlying neighborhoods. To avoid gridlock, the association advocates a menu of transportation improvements such as more carpool and truck lanes, freeway extensions into growth areas, more local shuttle buses and a regional system of high-speed trains.

In Orange County, for instance, transportation specialists are planning freeway and bus-service improvements, as well as studying a possible light-rail system.

"We are optimistic," said John Standiford, a spokesman for the Orange County Transportation Authority, "but it's going to take constant investment. It's not something where you can just come up with a plan, do a few projects and say that it's done. An overall comprehensive plan must continue because the growth is going to continue."

Andrew Malakates, a population specialist for Los Angeles County, said he agreed in general with the report's projections but cautioned that overcrowding might cause people to leave the region and lower the overall numbers.

"If you assume from what you see that the quality of life would be adversely affected, the next thought is: Wouldn't that impact the projections? I think it would," he said, adding that the governments association should have studied that possibility more.

The Moreno Valley Unified School District, for example, has experienced the turmoil caused when families can no longer stomach excruciating commutes and decide to sell or abandon homes, said Willie Williams, the district's facilities director. That exodus, combined with personnel cuts at March Air Force base, caused the net loss of about 3,000 students from the peak enrollment of about 32,000 five years ago, he said. Now, enrollment is rising again, but the key to substantial growth is to get more jobs in the local area, he said.

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