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Freeway Projects Face Delays

Rising construction and land costs could create a $1.2-billion shortfall in Los Angeles County.

October 20, 2005|Caitlin Liu | Times Staff Writer

Major freeway improvement projects planned across Los Angeles County over the next decade could be delayed because skyrocketing land and construction costs are driving a potential $1.2-billion funding shortfall, transportation officials said Wednesday.

Unless transportation agencies find ways to cut expenses or come up with more money, motorists on the area's freeways -- already the most traffic-choked in the nation -- might have to wait even longer for road widenings, carpool lanes and improved connectors.

"It is a dire picture. We as an agency are in a dire time," said Frank C. Roberts, a Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member and the mayor of Lancaster. "The problem is, we don't have the money."

He spoke Wednesday after agency planners presented a report on the rising costs.

David Fleming, another board member, said the agency faced some "tough choices" ahead.

Twelve major freeway improvement projects are underway in Los Angeles County and have combinations of local, state and federal funding. The potential money shortage would affect seven additional projects that have not yet broken ground but are supposed to be completed within the next decade.

The projects that could be affected include adding carpool lanes to the 60 and 10 freeways in the San Gabriel Valley and the 5 in the San Fernando Valley, a carpool lane connector at the interchange of the 5 and 14 freeways in the Santa Clarita Valley, renovating the 5 interchange at Carmenita Road in Santa Fe Springs and widening the 5 by two lanes in each direction from the Orange County border to the 605 freeway.

Two years ago, the price tag for the seven projects was estimated to be $1.2 billion. But with rising land and construction costs, the price has more than doubled.

The MTA estimates that about half of the gap is caused by the region's soaring real estate prices, making it more difficult to acquire houses and businesses in the paths of the projects.

The cost of construction materials, such as asphalt and steel, has also risen, along with more expensive surety bonds because of higher perceived threats from terrorism attacks and natural disasters.

The report was intended to give MTA board members, who set priorities and make funding decisions for the county's freeway system, a first look at the funding squeeze on the horizon. Planners stopped short of recommending specific actions but outlined some options, including delaying projects, borrowing money, raising local taxes and looking for ways to reduce project expenses. The MTA also could tap into about $800 million in federal and state funds that would otherwise be spent on mass transit, street improvements or other freeway projects.

"I've been losing sleep over it," said David Yale, the MTA's regional planning director, about the funding gap. "You want to keep the [freeway] program moving forward."

MTA planners will present their formal recommendations next month, and the board is expected to take action in December.

"It's just sticker shock for everybody to find out how much everything's going to cost," said Dan Beal, a managing director for the Automobile Club of Southern California. He bemoaned any delays in freeway improvements.

"Some of these projects are absolutely critical for goods movement from the ports, to maintain our inter-regional mobility," Beal said.

The MTA is among many agencies across the nation grappling with recent jumps in the cost of construction materials and energy, and prices show no sign of abating, transportation experts say.

The price of petroleum, a major component of asphalt paving used on freeways, also has risen sharply.

Last year, the world market experienced a "steel price crisis" and saw costs double in just a few months, said Michael F. Martin, a senior economist for the American Road and Transportation Builders Assn. Among other things, China has stopped exporting steel and is buying the metal and other materials for its building boom.

According to the MTA report, overall highway construction costs are 37% higher than 18 months ago.

MTA board member Bonnie Lowenthal, a Long Beach councilwoman, said she was hoping the agency could find innovative ways to "re-engineer" projects to save money.

"There's more than one way to skin a cat ... and cut costs," she said.

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