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Freeway Builders Run Into Wall of Politics and Protests

May 23, 2003|Sharon Bernstein, Deborah Schoch and Megan Garvey | Times Staff Writers

Faced with Southern California's snarled freeways, booming population and growing freight traffic, transportation experts spent millions of dollars studying the problem, weighed the options and came up with two partial solutions: Widen the Long Beach and Ventura freeways.

It took Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials less than two minutes Thursday to kill the Long Beach Freeway expansion. Two days earlier, Caltrans officials abandoned plans to add two carpool lanes in either direction on the Ventura from Studio City to Thousand Oaks.

The multibillion-dollar projects are the latest casualties in an ongoing war over how best to prepare an already overburdened region for what everyone agrees will be a crushing onslaught of people and commerce over the next 20 years.

"Somebody needs to answer the question: If we don't do these expansions, what's going to happen?" said Hasan Ikhrata, director of transportation planning and policy for the Southern California Assn. of Governments.

"People who live near the roads may not want them, but the result is going to be greater congestion and less quality of life for everyone," he said.

Just this week, new census figures showed the region covering Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and Ventura counties is adding nearly 2,000 new residents each day. Transportation officials estimate there are about 35 million car trips daily in the Greater Los Angeles area.

"I think there could be a day when it could be brought to a grinding stop," said MTA chief Roger Snoble. "But I am optimistic that there are sensible things that we can do to ease the problem and at least create a certain level of mobility."

Population growth has spurred regional planners to search for solutions. Proposals range from a "fifth ring" beltway linking fast-growing inland communities to boosting public transit use through a revitalized downtown Los Angeles.

As the fate of the Ventura Freeway and Long Beach Freeway projects indicates, there is no consensus that enlarging existing freeways or building new ones is the right answer.

The problem: Adding freeway lanes would have meant displacing families and businesses, a prospect that outraged homeowners. And those living within blocks of the freeways worried loudly about increased pollution and noise.

Still, public officials who voted down the projects this week conceded that the alternatives are far from perfect.

On Thursday, after shelving the expansion plans, the board voted to back a proposal to ease truck congestion by rescheduling trucks for travel during non-peak times in the late evening and at night. And they directed the MTA staff to work with local officials to come up with a new construction plan that would not take homes and businesses.

That is easier said than done, since improving two of the three most-congested Long Beach Freeway interchanges -- at the Artesia and Santa Ana freeways -- would probably require some home demolition, said an engineer with Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas Inc., the firm working on the matter.

The MTA board voted 10 to 0 Thursday morning to shelve all three Long Beach Freeway construction designs developed out of a $3.9-million study by the private engineering firm. The plans were favored by several key local officials just two months ago -- before news leaked six weeks ago that nearly 1,000 homes and businesses could be demolished for a rebuilt freeway and residents rose up en masse.

In the case of the Ventura Freeway widening, many observers said it was doomed from the onset. No matter how much the project would have relieved congestion, the political will simply was not there.

"It's the classic clash between good engineering and a public-oriented solution," said Richard Katz, a former state assemblyman who now co-chairs the San Fernando Valley Transportation Strike Force. "No elected official is going to go to their constituents and say, 'Give up your houses for the greater good.' Politically, it's very, very difficult to accomplish something like that."

At the heart of the problem, many experts say, is politics.

There are 88 cities in Los Angeles County, and the county itself is one of seven in Southern California. Each of those entities has its own interests, its own planners, transit experts, road-builders and, of course, elected leaders.

A project that appeals to one city may not appeal to another. And the state Legislature has not imbued any one governmental body with real power to override another.

"Every time we try to do something regionally, we get stopped with a lawsuit," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe, who sits on the MTA board and represents residents along the Alameda Corridor and the Long Beach Freeway.

There is distrust not only among the cities and counties, but among the various agencies whose job it is to oversee transportation planning. And there is outright hostility between community groups and the city, county and state workers who actually design and build the roads.

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