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That County-Line Jam Is No Accident

Local governments' transit priorities don't mesh, so motorists often brake as they lose lanes at the borders.

November 30, 2005|Jeffrey L. Rabin | Times Staff Writer

In north Orange County, Interstate 5 is a 10-lane superhighway, with the broad shoulders, terra-cotta sound walls and attractive landscaping one might expect along California's main north-south artery.

Just short of Los Angeles County, however, the artery clogs. It narrows to six lanes, three each way, and sheds its modern features, becoming a 1950s-vintage roadway.

Right about there, many northbound motorists get mad.

"The commute out of Orange County is impossible," fumed Paul Samarin, a Newport Beach lawyer, while gassing up near his home in Norwalk. "It bottlenecks and it stops."

Such is the fragmented world of transportation planning in California, where the state has largely left regional planning to counties, and counties' priorities don't necessarily match.

Drivers pay the price in time and frustration.

One reason for their plight is a major shift over the last few decades in who controls government money for roads. That power for years resided mostly in Sacramento, with planners from the state Department of Transportation and the state Transportation Commission deciding where freeways were built and which were improved.

But in 1997, a landmark law gave counties the power to set priorities for 75% of state transportation money. Then, as California grappled with financial problems, it cut transportation spending by billions of dollars.

Urban counties began to take greater charge of their own planning, using money from voter-approved tax measures aimed at unclogging freeways. Local governments also lobbied for federal money for their projects.The result: "Caltrans is the little brother," said Steve Schnaidt, staff director of the state Senate Transportation Committee. "Now the counties are the big boy on the block."

The trouble is, the counties often don't work together. They have very different to-do lists.

Los Angeles County, for instance, has a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax overwhelmingly geared to building and operating mass transit, while Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties have half-cent sales taxes that heavily emphasize highways and roads, though not always the same roads.

And in Ventura County, a half-cent transportation sales tax has twice failed to win the two-thirds majority needed for approval, severely crimping that county's ability to undertake new projects.

Politics is a complicating factor. To win passage, the transportation taxes -- except in Los Angeles County -- are linked to very specific projects, limiting flexibility and leaving residents of neighboring counties out of the process.

As a result, "you run into problems at county borders," Schnaidt said.

No better example exists than on I-5 in northern Orange County, where it is known as the Santa Ana Freeway. With voters' go-ahead, Orange County is working to eliminate the bottleneck at its border. A $251-million project to widen the last two miles short of the L.A. County line starts early next year.

"Say Goodbye to a Bottleneck" reads a colorful brochure from the Orange County Transportation Authority.

But L.A. County doesn't plan to finish widening even a portion of the Santa Ana Freeway for 10 years. So motorists will be saying hello to the bottleneck again up the road.

According to plans, commuters will have to wait until 2016 to see what is predicted to be a $1.4-billion expansion from the Orange County line through the L.A. County cities of La Mirada, Norwalk, Santa Fe Springs and part of Downey to the junction with the 605 Freeway.

Los Angeles County's Metropolitan Transportation Authority has other priorities. It has devoted most of its transportation sales tax revenue to completing a subway from downtown Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley, constructing three light-rail lines, upgrading its heavily used bus system and operating the buses and trains.

Meanwhile, OCTA predicts an enormous increase in traffic along the Santa Ana Freeway. Caltrans figures show average daily traffic in 2004 of 188,000 vehicles on I-5 at the L.A.-Orange County line. By 2020, OCTA expects 321,000 vehicles.

Commuters are looking for relief now, not 10 years from now.

"Once you get past the Disneyland area ... the magic of the mouse ends," said Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Joseph Weimortz Jr., who drove the route for years on his way to work in Norwalk. "It's like you hit ... the L.A. County wall."

Unless voters in either county switch gears, the two neighbors will remain radically out of sync. Orange County's course seems set. Since 1990, when voters endorsed a series of specific projects linked to a half-cent sales tax, 75% of the county's transportation sales tax money has been spent on roads and highways, according to transportation authority figures.

James de la Loza, the MTA's former chief planner, agreed that there appears to be "a lack of coordination" between the two counties. "There are huge disconnects."

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