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118 Freeway project runs low on funds

Ventura County needs $33 million to finish the widening but faces a reluctant state panel.

June 06, 2007|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

With work already underway to widen a key portion of the 118 Freeway, Ventura County officials say there is only enough money to expand one side of the busy roadway and are appealing to the state this week for more funding to complete the project.

The California Transportation Commission initially allocated $50 million for the project but higher construction costs left only enough to add an eastbound lane from Tapo Canyon Road in Simi Valley to the Los Angeles County line, officials said.

When county officials asked for an additional $32.7 million to complete the westbound portion of the freeway, the state Transportation Commission staff erroneously classified it as a new project rather than a cost increase and recommended that the request be rejected, officials said.

The state commission is holding two days of hearings, beginning today, in Sacramento to consider the county's request and other road projects throughout the state.

If funding is turned down for the second phase, the widening project will probably be delayed several years and the cost will significantly increase, county officials said. The project is necessary, they said, to help alleviate traffic along the busy commuter corridor.

Traffic on the stretch of the 118 Freeway increased from 110,000 vehicles daily in 1998 to 117,000 today. With no improvement, traffic planners estimate two-hour delays during morning and evening peak periods each weekday will double by 2025.

"This is a one-time opportunity to get it funded now," said Peter De Haan, director of projects for the Ventura County Transportation Commission.

Local planners hope state commissioners will agree to use a portion of funds from Proposition 1B -- a $19.9-billion statewide bond measure approved by voters last November -- to finish the widening project.

The project, authorized by state transportation planners nine years ago, was set to begin in 2003 but was delayed three years by the state's budget crisis. In the meantime, inflation significantly increased the costs by nearly $33 million, De Haan said.

But David Brewer, deputy executive director of the state Transportation Commission, said planners in Sacramento have been generous to Ventura County for much of this decade, allowing local projects to get more than their fair share of funding. He said the commission must now consider other worthy projects across the state.

"To the extent that they get further ahead, then other projects get that much further behind," said Brewer, explaining that Ventura County road projects were about $35 million ahead of normal funding in 2005, and were still some $16 million ahead at the beginning of the current two-year funding cycle

"The reason they weren't due to receive much in this augmentation is that they've received so much in the past," Brewer said.

Simi Valley City Manager Mike Sedell met with area legislators in Sacramento on Monday and was hopeful they could persuade transportation commissioners to support the request for additional funding.

Several legislators sent letters to the commission urging more money for the project, including Sen. Sheila Kuehl, (D-Santa Monica), Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) and Assemblyman Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara), chairman of the Assembly's transportation committee.

Nava said he would press Ventura County's case, but acknowledged that the county is at a disadvantage because it is the largest in the state without a local sales tax earmarked for transportation projects.

"If there's a single message that people should come away with, it is that self-help counties, and Ventura County is not one of them, are going to be moved to the top of the list in terms of funding," he said.

greg.griggs@latimes.com

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