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Plan May Do Little to Unclog Freeways

Roads: Davis' $5.3-billion project aims to steer commuters toward mass transit. Growing population may eclipse gains, one study finds.


Gov. Gray Davis' $5.3-billion transportation package will provide only marginal relief to keep the nation's most congested freeways from slowing to near-gridlock levels, according to a transportation analysis.

Average freeway speeds in Los Angeles County are now about 30 mph, and transportation experts predict they will drop to 20 mph by 2025, despite Davis' congestion-relief plan, which has been touted as the largest single investment in the state's transportation system.

The governor's funding plan will provide nominal improvement, preventing freeway speeds from dropping even more, to an average of 18 mph, according to an analysis that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority completed for The Times.

The reason that the massive funding plan won't do more to improve traffic flow: Over the next 25 years, Los Angeles County is expected to absorb an additional 3.5 million residents, most of whom will continue to crowd onto an overburdened freeway system.

When Davis announced the funding package last year, he promised it would help speed up commutes, improve roads and highways, and ease traffic congestion.

"Our mission has been to get the projects going to help relieve traffic congestion for millions of Californians," Davis said during a December news conference.

Today, supporters of the governor's plan stand by that pledge, but say the funding is primarily intended to steer more Southern Californians away from the freeways and toward mass transit.

"Most people, if they see a better way to get from point A to point B, they will take it," said Jeff Morales, director of the California Department of Transportation.

The transportation improvements will be paid from the budget surplus and gasoline tax revenue and spent over six years. In most cases, the plan offers only a down payment on construction costs, requiring local transit officials to come up with money to complete the work and to operate and maintain the new transit systems.

Morales and other transportation officials say the greatest benefit of the plan will be to motorists who abandon their cars to use the new transit projects.

MTA Chairman John Fasana agreed, telling the California Transportation Commission last week that the plan will jump-start several projects that local transportation officials feared would never be built.

"It has been vitally important to pursue projects we have only dreamed about," Fasana said.

Of the nearly $2 billion that the governor's plan will spend in Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties, $1.04 billion, or 52%, will help pay for such mass transit projects as light rail service to Pasadena, East Los Angeles and the Westside.

Such projects are expected to slash commute times by up to 15 minutes for riders who would usually take a bus or drive in rush hour freeway traffic, said Hasan Ikhrata, a transportation planning manager at the Southern California Assn. of Governments.

"The benefits are localized," Ikhrata said.

Combined, the four new Los Angeles County mass transit projects funded by the governor's plan are designed to carry nearly 300,000 passengers each day, according to transportation officials.

One of those passengers will be Presley Burroughs, an urban planner who lives in the Crenshaw Manor area and rides a bus 40 minutes each way to his job in downtown Los Angeles--a distance of seven miles.

Under Davis' plan, $256 million in state funds will be used to build a Westside light rail line and a new Wilshire Boulevard high-speed bus corridor to serve the traffic-choked Westside. Combined, the two projects will cost $521 million, with the balance of the costs coming from state and federal funds. The two projects are expected to carry up to 122,000 riders per day by 2014, although rail advocates hope to shorten that timeline.

Burroughs said he plans to be one of the riders on the Westside rail line, which he hopes will cut his commute by 15 minutes each way.

"It would be faster, it would be quicker, it would be less polluting," he said.

The governor's plan also sets aside $40 million to help pay for a 13.7-mile light rail line from downtown Los Angeles to Pasadena. The entire project will cost more than $684 million, with most of the money coming from other local and state transportation funds.

People who now travel on crowded buses from the Pasadena area to downtown Los Angeles would cut their commute time by five to 10 minutes by riding the proposed rail line, according to an MTA report.

The governor's plan allocates $749 million, or 37%, to expand freeway capacity, primarily by building 105 miles of carpool lanes on six freeways in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

The new carpool lanes are expected to increase capacity on those freeways by up to 18,000 vehicles per hour--enough to accommodate 40,000 more people.

Sam Aslanian, an architect for the city of Santa Monica, is looking forward to those new carpool lanes to speed his commute from his home in Santa Clarita to the Westside.

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