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Mayor wants 405 project in fast lane

In a drive to get state transportation officials to fund a long-delayed freeway-widening plan, Villaraigosa asks motorists to speak out.

February 20, 2007|Andrew Blankstein and Charles Proctor | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles political leaders on Monday vowed an all-out campaign over the next week to persuade state officials to fund a long-sought widening of the 405 Freeway over the Sepulveda Pass, saying the traffic-clogged Westside is in desperate need of relief.

The project, which would add a carpool lane on the northbound 405 between the 10 and 101 freeways, was left off the list of freeway improvements announced last week by the California Transportation Commission.

Although commission staff recommended a similar expansion project on Interstate 5 between the 605 Freeway and the Orange County line, Los Angeles officials were at a loss to explain why the funded projects didn't include creating the lane on the 405 -- especially after years of planning and delays.

The lobbying campaign kicked off Monday afternoon at the Federal Building on Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa darting through traffic -- on foot.

The mayor twice waded out into cars stopped at the Gayley Avenue intersection to hand out yellow and orange fliers with the phone number and e-mail address of the state Transportation Commission.

"Hey there, how are you?" Villaraigosa asked as he appeared at the driver's side window of a black SUV, surrounded by a gaggle of cameras. He handed the startled couple inside a flier. "Contact the CTC."

The mayor had less luck with the driver of a black Ford Mustang. In spite of the mayor's pleas, the woman refused to roll down her window. More than 300,000 cars cram through the Sepulveda Pass daily. And long before -- and often long after -- the traditional morning and evening commutes, an unending line of taillights snakes across the Santa Monica Mountains from the Westside to the San Fernando Valley.

"There is hardly a time, except in the overnight hours, when the 405 is not jampacked," Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said. "There is no question, on the merits, that this project is the most deserving in this county, and it's got to rank in the top two or three highway projects in the state."

John Barna, executive director of the commission, could not be reached for comment Monday.

But last week, he defended the commission staff's choices, saying the bond money should not be dispensed according to how many people live in an area but on the projects that will do the most to relieve congestion in an overall region. The staff, he said, chose projects based on "readiness for construction, demonstrable congestion relief and connectivity benefits" and "geographic balance."

The recommendations were for the first $2.8 billion of the $19.9 billion in borrowing that voters approved for transportation. The 405 project -- at a cost of nearly $1 billion -- could make the cut in the future.

Commission staff recommended nearly four dozen projects across the state for the first round. Big local projects include adding a carpool lane to a section of the 10 Freeway in the San Gabriel Valley and installing a network of carpool lanes connecting the 22, 405 and 605 freeways in northern Orange County.

The 405 carpool lane project would fill the "missing link," by creating continuous carpool lanes from Orange County to the northern end of the Valley, local transportation officials and political leaders said.

Backers say that if funding appropriations for the project are delayed, the state could miss out on $130 million in federal transportation matching funds.

Villaraigosa, along with city, county, state and federal officials, said at a news conference in Westwood that under the commission's proposal, Los Angeles residents weren't receiving their fair share of the funds and hinted that voters would remember that when additional transportation bonds came up on the ballot.

"If they can't fulfill their promise, it's going to be a long, long time before voters in Los Angeles County will commit themselves to any more dollars," Supervisor Gloria Molina, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said as traffic buzzed in the background.

For commuters, the widened 405 can not come soon enough.

Michael Backes, 52, of Glassell Park knows the nightmarish commute over the Sepulveda Pass well. He did it for 10 years from his home in Sherman Oaks to his job in Brentwood before, fed up with sitting in traffic for up to an hour, he moved to a home near Dodger Stadium.

Backes recalled taking winding side streets to get around the 405 in the evening. He even tried driving up a dusty dirt road at the Franklin Canyon Reservoir. "It wasn't so bad," he remembered as he munched on his lunch at a Whole Foods on Gayley Avenue, "if you didn't mind looking like you got out of a rally car event at the end."

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

charles.proctor@latimes.com

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Q & A

Why are officials pushing so hard for widening the 405 Freeway north between the 10 and the 101 freeways when there are so many transportation needs across the region?

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