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So Many Cars, So Little Money

California's spending on its crowded, crumbling highway system falls far short of drivers' needs

July 10, 2006|Maria L. LaGanga and Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writers

Every dime of California's $116-billion plan to shore up levees, schools and other eroding facilities could be spent on the state's overtaxed transportation system.

And it still wouldn't be enough.

California's highways, the system's most costly feature by far, were once the nation's gold standard. But as the interstate highway network celebrates its 50th anniversary and the summer driving season accelerates, the state is known for something else: some of the busiest, most dilapidated and under-financed roads in the country.

Over the last several years, money for highway projects has virtually disappeared, the victim of budget crises, stagnant federal funding and a gas tax that has not been raised in a decade.

When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger posed near Interstate 405 earlier this year, proposing to relieve congestion there as part of a statewide public works blitz, it seemed that, finally, some relief was in sight.

But the state's transportation system -- especially its crumbling highway network -- has a long list of unfunded needs with a price tag of at least $140 billion, said Sunne Wright McPeak, secretary of the state Business, Transportation and Housing Agency.

The state's planned investment in roads is just "a drop in the bucket," said Art Brown, chairman of the Orange County Transportation Authority, reflecting the view of many officials.

On the other hand, he said, "we need every drop we can get."

For now, the state expects to spend $21 billion on road maintenance and improvement over the next five years. Additional money could come from $37.3 billion in bond measures on the November ballot -- the only new money proposed in the state's $116-billion infrastructure plan.

Of that bond money, about $11.5 billion would go to highway and road projects across the state to patch a system that the California Transportation Commission describes as "a shambles."

Some of it would be distributed using set formulas, with cities and counties getting at least $400,000 for pavement repair. The rest -- about $7 billion -- is up for grabs.

"I'm convinced that there isn't enough money," said Martin Wachs, director of the Rand Corp.'s transportation program. And that, Wachs and others say, sets up some daunting choices.

Where should the state start? To find out, The Times interviewed traffic experts and commuters and analyzed state transportation data.

Seven routes were repeatedly cited as being in greatest need, renowned for their spine-jarring disrepair, omnipresent trucks, deadly collisions or intractable congestion. And problems on an eighth route could soon surpass them all.


Top Delays in the State: 91 Freeway

THE ROUTE: California 91, the Riverside Freeway, from Interstate 15 to the Orange County line

THE POTENTIAL FIXES: Adding lanes, a parallel or elevated expressway, an 11-mile tunnel under the Cleveland National Forest

THE COST: Up to $13 billion for all projects

Howard and Mary Monise live in a comfortable, 2,500-square-foot house in Corona, where the neighborhood is pleasant, the schools are good -- and the commute to work is a grueling ordeal.

Although they live only 40 miles from their jobs at Dan Gurney's All American Racers in Santa Ana, they spend two to three hours a day stuck in traffic on the 91, a bad commute that worsens as the week progresses.

"It's frustrating," Mary said. "Every time I see a new housing project out here, I cringe."

During rush hours, the Riverside Freeway becomes a rumbling parking lot: all idling engines, squeaking brakes and commuter angst. More than 285,000 motorists take to the road each workday.

The most congested stretch is the Corona bottleneck -- eight miles of crowded pavement between I-15 in Riverside County and the Orange County line. Jammed for up to 12 hours a day, the bottleneck has average rush hour speeds of less than 14 mph.

California Department of Transportation statistics show that this single section causes more total delay for motorists than any other highway in the state -- the equivalent of 17,202 hours per day, enough hours to fill up two years.

By 2025, the number of motorists on the Riverside Freeway is expected to reach 450,000 a day. Local planners hope to finance improvements with state and federal money as well as revenue from transportation sales tax initiatives in Riverside and Orange counties. Most of the funding, however, is not yet in hand.

For now, the Monises carefully monitor traffic reports and painstakingly plan their drive to work. When possible, they carpool with friends so they can split fares on the area's toll roads. They hope for the best but don't expect much.

"I don't see it really getting any better," rued Howard. "You just have to adjust."


Bay Area's Worst: I-80 to the Bridge

THE ROUTE: Interstate 80, Eastshore Freeway,

from California 4 to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge

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