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The road to gridlock

January 07, 2006

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER'S plan to spend $222 billion over a decade to pay for much-needed infrastructure improvements is a visionary idea. But when it comes to the transit portion of the governor's plan, he apparently envisions a future of gridlock and cloying air pollution.

Schwarzenegger proposes $107 billion for transportation, which includes projects to clean up the ports and speed the movement of cargo as well as things such as new bike paths. More than $80 billion would go to improve state highways and other routes, with less than $5 billion for transit and rail services. And all of the latter total would go for trains between cities, such as Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner. Not one thin dime goes for mass transit within cities.

That means Los Angeles can forget about an extension of the Red Line subway down Wilshire Boulevard. The desperately needed Green Line light-rail connection to LAX? Not going to happen, at least not within a couple of decades. More busways? Only if the county can fund them itself.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is struggling to find the money to meet its current commitments, such as construction of the Expo Line from downtown to Culver City. Local transit planners had been relying on the governor to include money in his bond proposal to help fund some of L.A.'s other critical needs. Sadly, they were ignored.

State transportation officials feel that local governments should handle such urban mass-transit projects. That's nonsense. For any sizable transit project, the state usually kicks in a quarter of the cost, the locals take care of another quarter and the federal government covers the rest. The proposed bonds would put the state so deeply in debt that cities such as Los Angeles would get a pittance from the state to cover new projects well into the future.

There's plenty more reason to question the governor's ideas on transportation. He envisions toll roads and lanes on certain key routes -- not a bad concept in principle, but again, the devil is in the details. One project discussed by state planners is a dedicated toll lane for trucks on the 710 Freeway to carry goods from the ports of L.A. and Long Beach to downtown-area rail yards. This does little or nothing to reduce diesel emissions. A better way to reduce pollution and truck traffic is to build more on-dock or near-dock rail yards and send cargo by rail along the underused Alameda Corridor; Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway has proposed building just such a yard.

Fortunately, the governor's spending priorities are not set in stone. His proposal will now go to the Legislature, which has only a short time to draft a bill if a ballot measure is to be ready in time for the June elections. The Legislature should shift money from road improvements and into urban mass transit instead. L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former Assembly speaker who also chairs the MTA board, should make it a priority to ensure that happens.

Big-city transit takes cars off the roads -- relieving congestion on the very routes the governor aims to improve -- and reduces vehicle emissions. Though the governor's freeway projects are worthy, expanded freeways quickly become jammed as they lure more drivers. Building more roads and freeways while starving mass transit is a vision from California's past, not for its future.

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