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Dispute over signal funds stalls budget

Senate Republicans say L.A. would get more than its share of bond money to synchronize traffic lights. Mayor says allocation is secure.

August 07, 2007|Patrick McGreevy and Evan Halper | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO -- A proposal to ease traffic congestion in Los Angeles by providing $150 million in state bond money to synchronize hundreds of traffic signals has become a point of contention in the state budget dispute, with key Republicans saying that other cities should be allowed to vie for the money.

The traffic light money, part of a pot of $250 million in the budget for signals, is one of a handful of issues that Republican lawmakers in the Senate have cited in refusing to vote for a budget approved last month by the state Assembly.

"It's a sticking point," Senate Minority Leader Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine) said Monday. "I would just like to see a fairer distribution of that money by having all congested areas of the state compete."

Ackerman said any budget compromise needs to put the California Transportation Commission or another third party in charge of a process in which all cities with traffic congestion could compete for a share of the money.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, August 08, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part Page National Desk 2 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Traffic signals: An article in Tuesday's California section about the state budget debate over traffic signal funds said that Assembly Republican leader Mike Villines was at a meeting last year with legislative leaders and the governor. It should have said former Assembly Republican leader George Plescia was there. Villines, who had not assumed the leadership position, did not attend.

Los Angeles is one of the most congested cities in the state, Ackerman acknowledged, but he said a fair distribution process would probably give Los Angeles $100 million of the $250 million set aside in the budget for traffic signal synchronization.

"They are getting $50 million more than they would otherwise," Ackerman said.

The funding is included in a so-called trailer bill specifying that the $150 million go to any California city with a population of 3.5 million or more -- a standard that only Los Angeles meets. L.A.-area legislators, including Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, a Democrat, have vowed to fight any attempt to strip the funding provision.

"This should be a slam-dunk for a project that passes every test on its merits," said Steve Maviglio, a senior advisor to Nuñez. "We are hopeful that Senate Republicans would be more interested in easing gridlock and cleaning the air than petty partisan political payback."

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said he was confident, after assurances from Nuñez, that the money was not in jeopardy.

"The millions of commuters who are stuck in traffic every day should not be further stalled by partisan bickering in Sacramento," Villaraigosa said Monday.

"The people were promised traffic relief when they voted for the bond, and we will continue to fight to make sure that the promise is kept."

City officials said signal synchronization would reduce traffic delays by 32% and reduce emissions by more than 900,000 metric tons per year, benefiting the entire region.

However, state Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster), who represents a small part of Los Angeles, sees the earmark as "clear pork," benefiting one area of the state over others.

"When the voters voted for that, they voted for $250 million to be made available statewide on a competitive basis," Runner said. "It was never intended to be earmarked so one city gets 60%."

Sen. Jim Battin (R-La Quinta) said the allocation for Los Angeles "is not fair to the voters of Riverside County. It is stealing money from them."

The money for traffic signals would come from $19.9 billion in borrowing for transportation projects approved by voters in November.

Democrats say that the governor and legislative leaders, including Ackerman and Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines, agreed before putting the transportation measure on the ballot that the bulk of the $250 million set aside for street signals would go to Los Angeles.

But the agreement was never put in writing, and the bond measure that came before voters did not mention any specific portion for the city.

A senior official in the governor's office, who asked to remain anonymous because of the confidential nature of budget discussions, however, agreed that Republican leaders signed off on the $150 million for Los Angeles.

Los Angeles officials have been working for more than a decade to synchronize the traffic lights at 4,400 key intersections in the city, and have completed the work at about 3,000 of them, including several in the San Fernando Valley and Exposition Park.

The city's budget for this year sets aside $17.3 million in local sales tax revenue for installing the city's Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control system in nine more communities, including Canoga Park, Eagle Rock, Harbor Gateway and San Pedro.

The $150 million in state bond money would allow Los Angeles to complete the synchronization at all the remaining key intersections, said Matt Szabo, a spokesman for the mayor.

The city system uses technology to ensure that a motorist traveling on a major street at the speed limit will have minimal stops.

Also, the system allows city traffic engineers to manually control traffic signal timing to more efficiently move motorists when road conditions change due to the weather, accidents or special events.

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