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Growing Remote Areas See Fringe Benefits in Gov.'s Plan

North L.A. County and the Inland Empire will seek millions to improve roads and create jobs.

January 19, 2006|Amanda Covarrubias and Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writers

Perhaps no place in California potentially stands to gain more from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's $222-billion proposal to improve California's roads and infrastructure than the fast-growing suburbs on the fringes of Southern California.

Communities in the Antelope Valley north of Los Angeles and portions of Riverside and San Bernardino counties are expected to add more than 2 million residents in the next 20 years, but planners have long warned that those areas don't have the road and transit capacity to effectively deal with the crush of new people.

While lawmakers negotiate the details of the governor's proposal, local officials are already dusting off freeway and road plans that they hope will better accommodate the rising population. Perhaps more important, officials believe more roads would finally attract more jobs to the areas, thereby reducing the imbalance between homes and jobs that has forced residents into lengthy commutes.

"Our elected officials have ignored this to the point it has become a crisis," said Jim Ledford, mayor of Palmdale, the Antelope Valley city whose population doubled in the last 20 years to 140,000 and is expected to increase by an additional 80% in the next 20. "You only have to drive Highway 14 any morning to see the congestion. The job-housing ratio up here is out of balance. We need job creation.... There's gridlock at any interchange you look at. It's like they say, 'We're only one accident away from missing dinner' on any given night."

The population of Palmdale and other parts of north Los Angeles County is expect to grow from 600,000 people to more than 1 million by 2020, fueled by several sprawling developments, including Newhall Ranch and Centennial along Interstate 5.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority concluded last year that north Los Angeles County needs $5 billion in road-related projects, including widening the traffic-clogged Highway 14, or the Antelope Valley Freeway, adding carpool lanes on Interstate 5 and expanding Pearblossom Highway, a two-lane road now clogged with commuters that is one of the most dangerous in California. Eventually, officials would like to build a freeway or toll road to connect north Los Angeles County with the Inland Empire.

Though such road projects could draw even more residential development to north Los Angeles County, experts said such infrastructure would more likely be the tipping point to lure manufacturing and retail companies that have up to now shunned the area because it is so remote.

The Antelope Valley sees its best chances at job growth in becoming a "logistics" hub for truck and rail traffic coming from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The idea is to build distribution centers there that would then route goods from the ports to cities around the nation.

"There's a lot of movement in our direction, but we need to solve the problems with our infrastructure," said Lancaster Mayor Frank Roberts. "You'd have more high-caliber, high-paying jobs. And they don't have to drive out of town to get there."

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Communities along Interstate 215 in the Inland Empire find themselves in a position similar to north Los Angeles County's. Cheap land brought an explosion of housing over the last two decades along the freeway, which runs from Temecula north to San Bernardino.

But jobs have not kept pace.

Software specialist Jeff Hester has lived in Murrieta since 1989, before the town had a single stoplight. He's watched his southwest Riverside County community mushroom from 44,000 in 2000 to 75,000 and growing.

Roads and freeways have gotten so congested that Hester and his wife must carefully choose when to dine out in nearby Temecula because traffic on the 215 and adjacent 15 is so snarled.

"Do we really want to travel across town [to make] what used to be a 10-minute, what will be a 35- to 40-minute drive?" Hester said. "The traffic on the freeway has gotten so bad now, the surface streets that connect the two cities have gotten so bad, you really have to think about ... do we have time to fight the traffic, depending on what day of the week or what hour it is."

Though he enjoys living in Murrieta, Hester -- like many of his neighbors -- works many miles away. Hester avoids the worst of commuter gridlock tying up the 91 and the 215 freeways, but he still spends about 90 minutes each way on the Ortega Highway, winding 53 miles through the mountains to his job in Orange County's Aliso Viejo several days a week, when he's not telecommuting.

"We could use some improvements in our infrastructure around here," Hester said. Widening the 215 would "make a huge dent" in the traffic woes.

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