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Gov. Calls for Big Investment in L.A. Rail System

The bond proposal gets a warm reception from officials worried about growing freight traffic.

January 21, 2006|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's $222-billion infrastructure bond proposal includes a significant investment in improving Los Angeles' congested rail system, he said Friday.

Though his proposal is still in its early stages, local officials are reacting enthusiastically because Los Angeles County's rail lines are becoming increasingly clogged by freight traffic coming from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach as well as the growing Metrolink commuter rail line.

Union Station is the hub of the region's rail network, with 126 trains using the station every workday. The governor's plan calls for spending $290 million on improvements, such as adding tracks and eliminating rail crossings.

"This will relieve traffic congestion, make it safer on our roads, and make it more convenient for people to use this great rail system," Schwarzenegger said in a visit to Los Angeles on Friday.

The governor's proposal is subject to negotiations with state legislators, who could make significant changes or decide not to put anything on the ballot.

To reduce delays at Union Station, the proposal calls for extending two existing tracks southward from Union Station and provide a new connection into the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway mainline on the west side of the Los Angeles River.

The plan calls for $36 million to be spent to provide a third rail line on an eight-mile stretch of track north of La Mirada.

The governor's proposal also has something in it for Southern California motorists stuck waiting for slow-moving trains to pass at rail crossings: grade separations allowing cars and trucks to pass unimpeded underneath railroad tracks at busy intersections.

He proposed spending $214 million on five grade separations where streets cross train tracks: Rosecrans Avenue/Marquardt Avenue, Lakeland Road, Los Nietos Road/Norwalk Boulevard, Pioneer Boulevard and Passons Boulevard.

Congestion along Los Angeles' rail lines has become an increasing concern in recent years. Last year, Metrolink's Inland Empire-to-Los Angeles route recorded major delays, which officials say is because the commuter line had to share the rails with freight trains.

Some commuters have also complained about lengthy waits at rail crossings as trains passed. More than 35,000 trains, many of them longer than a mile, course through the region every year, according to 2003 statistics.

The Republican governor was joined Friday by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat, in urging bipartisan support in the state Legislature for putting the bond measure on the ballot this year.

Villaraigosa said he has some of his own ideas for things to include, but he likes what the governor is proposing and hopes some version close to it can be put before voters.

"I can tell you: L.A.'s transportation needs are substantial and complex and that they won't be remedied overnight," the mayor said. "We need to take the long view. It's important to make a substantial investment in transportation infrastructure."

The governor says that his entire infrastructure plan will help reduce traffic congestion by 18% over the next 10 years, even though Southern California's population is expected to increase by 2 million during that period. It will do that, in part, by funding more than 1,200 miles of new highway and carpool lanes in congested areas and adding 600 miles of mass transit.

Some transportation experts, however, are skeptical that even a major freeway improvement campaign will significantly improve commutes in some heavily congested areas.

After hearing the governor provide new details on specific projects to get traffic flowing in Los Angeles, Villaraigosa promised to use his political capital to push state legislators to put the measure on the ballot in June or, if more time is needed, in November at the latest.

"You go to a Little League game, or a job site, a family birthday party, and the first topic that everybody talks about and that's on everybody's mind is how bad the traffic was," Villaraigosa said.

The mayor praised specific projects outlined in the governor's proposed Strategic Growth Plan, including $350 million for construction of a carpool lane on the northbound San Diego Freeway through the Westside and into the San Fernando Valley.

The details of the plan spelled out by the governor impressed business leaders who attended Friday's event, including Bill Allen, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

Allen said it is crucial for the state to improve Southern California's rail system, not just to ease stress on commuters. The improvements also will have a positive effect on the economy of an area that includes two of the busiest ports in the world, he said.

"We really are America's loading dock here in Southern California," Allen said.

The governor's plan is garnering criticism from other candidates for governor, including Democrats Phil Angelides and Steve Westly.

Angelides, the state treasurer, said it is stunning that only 4.5% of the money proposed by the governor for transportation would go to urban mass transit.

"The fact is, if you look at the plan, it's really a regurgitation of 20th century ideas and not 21st century innovations," Angelides said.

Westly, the state controller, is concerned there is no guarantee the money will be spent wisely and as promised, so he has proposed a bond oversight committee, said campaign spokesman Nick Velasquez.

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