California remained the most congested state in the nation in 2003, and a combination of bad luck, poor planning and old-fashioned politics promises to mire future improvements to the state's sagging transportation system in 2004 and for years to come.
The cause of the growing traffic congestion, which researchers have documented again and again, can partly be found in the state's history: California's roads were built and conceived at a time when there were far fewer people here, and when the shipping industry, now anchored to a large degree at West Coast ports, was based on the Eastern Seaboard.
Now commuters vie with trucks on an increasingly unwieldy and dangerous system that transportation planners warn must be improved soon, or there will be hours-long waits for both trucks and cars, and even more deadly collisions than there are now.
"It's just going to get worse," said Joel Anderson, president of the California Trucking Assn. "With money back in the economy, and people having more bucks to spend, more bucks mean more trucks."
To be sure, there were some bright spots for transportation in 2003.
Work continued apace on many of the small projects -- lane widenings, signal synchronization, bus purchases -- that are designed to make the system flow more smoothly.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority completed and opened the Gold Line light-rail route, connecting Pasadena with downtown Los Angeles in the same way that the nation's first freeway connected those two cities more than half a century ago. The opening filled an important hole in the region's developing mass transit web, and raised hopes that Southern Californians could soon have reliable alternatives to automobile travel through much of metropolitan Los Angeles.
And the Alameda Corridor, a 20-mile, partially underground railway connecting the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to rail yards near downtown, entered its second year with many nearby residents pleased that trains no longer idled in their communities, clogging traffic and belching fumes.
But the hoped-for smooth ride forward soon got bumpy.
In a move that would portend much of what came later, the Los Angeles City Council voted last January to save money by revising the yardstick it uses to undertake bridge maintenance.
In the past, the city said that up to 20% of its bridges could remain in "very poor" or "fair to poor" condition. Under the council's action, 30% of bridges will be allowed to remain in those categories.
Soon after the council's action, the Legislature voted to "borrow" $100 million from transportation funds to spend in other areas, leaving cities and counties to scramble to find other ways to pay for desperately needed projects.
More borrowing would be approved for the next fiscal year, which started in July, and the new administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has now decided to borrow the entire contents of the state's $1-billion anti-congestion fund and kill the program outright, jeopardizing funding for $5.3-billion worth of road, rail and bus improvements.
Some Los Angeles-area projects, including a dedicated busway in the San Fernando Valley, were saved when the MTA decided to borrow against future state allocations. But others face uncertain fates.
To the disappointment of commuters and residents who must vie with freight-moving trucks on the overcrowded Long Beach Freeway, the $2.5-billion Alameda Corridor, while successful at moving trains away from the surface and therefore out of neighborhoods, turned out to be operating at less than half of its capacity.
Because of changes in the economics of the shipping industry, not to mention a hefty fee charged by the operators of the corridor, most companies continued to send freight from the ports to inland destinations by truck -- clogging the 710, as well as the Harbor Freeway, the 101 and I-5.
Throughout the year, the communities along the Long Beach Freeway were rocked by a series of deadly collisions involving trucks: In September, a tanker truck carrying 9,000 gallons of gasoline jackknifed and exploded on the freeway, killing the big rig's driver and forcing the evacuation of about 150 nearby residents.
A month later, six people were killed and six more injured when a tractor-trailer loaded with furniture crashed into a Toyota Corolla and then plowed through the center divider. That accident brought the total deaths to 913 on that stretch of road during a period of just over five years.
Despite crowding on the freeways, plans to widen the 710, as well as parts of the 101, were met with fierce protest. Residents and businesses objected when it was learned the projects would mean demolishing hundreds of houses and commercial buildings.
As a result, the plans were shelved, and transportation planners started over in an effort to develop projects that would be more acceptable to local neighborhoods.