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More Freeway Lanes, Transit Spending Urged

Traffic: Auto Club calls for action to combat increasing gridlock, and says transportation must become a priority with policymakers in Southern California.

October 02, 2002|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Auto Club of Southern California has added its voice to the public debate over the region's worsening traffic congestion by issuing a plan that calls for increased spending on transportation, the construction of more freeway lanes and routine evaluations of existing transportation programs, among other ideas.

The plan, which will be released today, is the first comprehensive traffic blueprint issued by the 102-year-old organization and signals a growing frustration among its 5 million members over the region's increasing gridlock.

"We are not prepared to tell our members that we are just going to wait until traffic stops dead," said Auto Club President Thomas V. McKernan Jr.

Dating back to the 1930s, the Auto Club has endorsed transportation initiatives, such as bond measures and ballot proposals.

But for the most part, the organization has limited its public policy initiatives to promoting safe driving programs, such as reducing teen drunk driving.

Over the last three years, McKernan said, Auto Club members have urged the organization--through surveys and polls--to play a bigger role in solving Southern California's worsening traffic problems.

In response, a committee of the club's board of trustees drafted the 48-page plan with the consultation of various academics and transportation planners.

Most of the recommendations are short on specifics and echo ideas proposed by local public transportation agencies.

Still, Auto Club leaders say they hope the plan will spur Southern California policymakers to put traffic on the top of their agenda.

"California transportation needs champions--leaders who will consistently and effectively seek and implement solutions," the plan states.

Transportation experts who have read advance copies of the plan give it positive reviews, saying it proposes--for the most part--common-sense ideas.

"What they are proposing is nothing radical," said Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA. "Its tone is moderate and promotes consensus-building."

Taylor agreed that Southern California's worsening traffic congestion should receive more attention from state lawmakers.

"Until a crisis occurs, there tends to be not much action," he said. "Unfortunately that is the nature of politics."

Evidence of the worsening conditions on Southern California freeways is without dispute.

Motorists in Los Angeles County spent an average of 136 hours on gridlocked freeways in 2000, making it the most congested county in the nation for the 15th year in a row, according to an annual study by the Texas Transportation Institute.

Based on current trends, average freeway speeds in Los Angeles County are expected to drop to about 20 mph by 2025.

The Auto Club's recommendations include:

* Build more freeway lanes. The study notes that from 1967 to 1997, California's population increased 70%, the number of licensed drivers jumped 91% and annual vehicle miles traveled shot up by 184%. At the same time, roadway capacity--or miles of new lanes--increased by only 29%, according to the report.

The Auto Club study does not specify how many miles of roadway should be built each year, but McKernan said additional lanes could be built by widening or double-decking existing freeways.

* Devote more money to transportation. The Auto Club supported Proposition 42, an initiative adopted by voters in March that permanently designates gasoline sales tax for transportation projects.

In addition to that funding, the plan suggests that the state increase the use of bond money and general fund dollars to pay for transportation improvements.

The plan also recommends eliminating the two-thirds majority needed to adopt or reenact a local transportation sales tax.

"Putting more money into transportation is absolutely necessary," said Mark Pisano, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Governments, who has seen an advance copy of the plan.

* Approve and fund public transit projects that give the greatest benefits. Although the plan describes automobiles as the "backbone" of Southern California's transportation system, it calls for continued funding of cost-effective transit programs such as buses and rail lines.

McKernan said the Auto Club believes the traffic problem can be fixed only with a combination of strategies, including cars, buses, trains and bicycles.

"We don't believe there is a magic bullet," he said.

* Streamline the funding and construction process. The federal environmental review required to build a major freeway project takes an average of 5 1/2 years.

* Prioritize potential transportation projects. The plan recommends that transportation spending give priority to those projects that move the most people efficiently. The plan also calls for regular evaluations and audits to weed out those projects that are not meeting their goals.

"We want to support what is the best cost-efficient way to move the most people," McKernan said.

He complained about what he sees as a lack of leadership on the problem.

McKernan also noted that traffic is not the sole responsibility of one elected official or one public agency.

SCAG, the California Department of Transportation, Metropolitan Transportation Authority and dozens of local agencies all take a supporting role in managing and building Southern California's transportation system.

But Pisano said all of those agencies cooperate well together.

"Our strategies are integrated," he said. "We have a game plan."

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