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$81-Billion Transit Plan Drawn Up

Regional planners visualize new taxes, tolls and housing fees paying for a host of highway and other projects over the next 30 years.

October 02, 2003|Caitlin Liu | Times Staff Writer

Grappling with funding shortfalls, regional planners today will unveil a plan to raise about $81 billion for new freeway and transit projects over the next three decades through new taxes, tolls and housing fees.

"To put it bluntly, we're broke as a region," said Hasan Ikhrata, director of planning and policy for the Southern California Assn. of Governments. Without additional levies on drivers and residents, "we have no money to build anything new," he said.

SCAG's preliminary draft of its 2004 regional transportation plan calls for increasing the region's gasoline tax by 10 cents a gallon and Los Angeles County's sales tax by a half-cent.

For San Bernardino County, one of the fastest-growing areas in the region, planners propose a fee of several thousand dollars on each new house built and continuing the county's half-cent sales tax increase, scheduled to expire in 2010.

To expand highly congested corridors such as the Ventura and Long Beach freeways, planners are proposing adding lanes -- many of which would be elevated or underground -- to be paid for with tolls on solo motorists and truck drivers using those lanes.

"It's a wonderful plan.... You know it's going for transportation, and it's going to improve your quality of life," said Lee Ann Garcia, chairwoman of SCAG's transportation and communications committee and the mayor of Grand Terrace, a city in San Bernardino County. "These are ideas that will be presented to the region, and we'll be taking a lot of public input before we adopt it."

But others are skeptical that many residents would welcome such a plan. "Everybody and his mother wants to raise the sales tax in the county ... the sheriff, the MTA and now SCAG," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "I don't think people are going to be supportive.... It's pie in the sky."

SCAG's regional council is scheduled to approve a final version of the plan in April. If a project is not included in the plan, which SCAG updates every three years, that project would not receive federal or state funding. Underlying this year's plan is a greater shift toward making users pay more for transportation through such measures as tolls. "It's becoming more common around the country, because there just isn't any money available for large projects," said Robert Poole, director of Transportation Studies at the Reason Public Policy Institute in Los Angeles.

In the 1960s, the federal government provided more than half of the transportation funding for the region, according to SCAG. Now, federal dollars account for only 15% to 20% of the area's transit funding.

From now until 2030, SCAG's region -- which also includes Orange, Ventura, Riverside and Imperial counties -- is expected to receive $120 billion in federal and state transportation funding. That money represents enough to maintain the existing infrastructure but would not provide for any improvements, Ikhrata said. In the meantime, the region's population is expected to increase by 6 million.

The new taxes and fees are expected to generate about $31 billion for freeway and transit projects -- ranging from carpool lane connectors to extending the Gold Line light-rail route to expanding the Metro Rapid bus system. User fees from toll projects are expected to produce another $50 billion.

Planners envision building elevated truck-only lanes for the Long Beach and Pomona freeways and Interstate 15 to accommodate the growing port traffic. Toll projects for the public would include the Long Beach Freeway extension through South Pasadena, a new freeway connecting Riverside and Orange counties and two toll lanes for the Venturaq Freeway that may be elevated or underground.

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