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$4.5 billion for freeways is divvied up

The list of upgrades approved by state transportation planners includes $2.7 billion for the Southland, but relief is still years away.

March 01, 2007|Dan Weikel and Jeffrey L. Rabin | Times Staff Writers

State officials Wednesday approved the largest infusion of state money for road improvements in decades, but for many commuters across California, the promised traffic relief might not arrive for years.

The $4.5 billion in assistance approved by the California Transportation Commission eventually will ease the plight of motorists on the Southland's most congested roads, including the San Diego Freeway, Interstate 5, and the notorious Riverside Freeway.

But it will take years before interchanges are fixed, carpool lanes are built and freeways widened. Many projects, particularly the most expensive ones, won't be completed until 2012 or later.

Just as significant, the state money, which represents the first installment of a $19.9-billion transportation bond measure overwhelmingly approved by voters in November, covers only a fraction of today's need.

The commission staff estimates that California requires up to $140 billion in highway and mass transit improvements to keep the state moving.

According to Caltrans, the percentage of highways in the state deemed congested rose from 32 to 43 from 1992 to 2002. Caltrans defines congestion as rush-hour traffic that moves at 35 mph or less.

At about the same time, the state's population grew by 21% while the number of miles in the highway system rose by only 3%.

Though the state's transportation needs are substantial, Wednesday's action marked a turning point after years of neglect and worsening traffic congestion, particularly in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area.

"This is a significant first step," said Marian Bergeson, a former Orange County legislator and chairwoman of the nine-member Transportation Commission. "We haven't been funding projects for years. Now, we can get the ball rolling again."

During the state budget crisis, billions of dollars were shifted from transportation programs to cover deficits in the general fund, forcing the commission to withdraw financial support for road projects.

Bergeson and other transportation officials said the bond money will allow Caltrans and county transportation agencies to combine the assistance with county sales tax revenue and federal matching funds.

"There's still a big need out there," said Roger Snoble, chief executive of Los Angeles County's Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "This is a great start. It is going to take a lot more to solve all the problems."

Arthur T. Leahy, executive director of the Orange County Transportation Authority, said he could not recall the last time he saw such a surge in state money for pending projects. Orange County received $383 million in assistance.

"This is the first big deal in six years," Leahy said. "We are now putting money back into transportation, rather than taking it out."

The commission divided up the assistance before a standing-room-only crowd in the Irvine City Council chamber. About $1.8 billion was earmarked for projects in Northern California and $2.7 billion for Southern California.

"This is only a down payment to get us where we should have been years ago. Now we are spending money to bring ourselves current," said Commissioner Larry Zarian, a former Glendale mayor and MTA board chairman.

"We promised [commuters] that we are going to relieve congestion, and that is what's going to happen," Zarian added. "Is it going to be 100%? The answer is no."

In Los Angeles County alone, the state will spend $1.2 billion in bond money on three major projects.

Two of the projects are planned on Interstate 5, one through the San Fernando Valley and the other from the 605 Freeway interchange in Downey to the Orange County line, which is one of the oldest and least improved sections of the highway.

The third project involves adding a 10-mile carpool lane on the San Diego Freeway from the Santa Monica Freeway to the Ventura Freeway. It received $730 million in state assistance, the largest single allocation.

Commissioner Esteban Torres, a former longtime congressman from the Eastside of Los Angeles, said the message to solo drivers was simple: "At some point you're going to have to double up to minimize the load on the freeway."

After a last-minute pitch from representatives of Orange and Riverside counties, the commission agreed to partially fund additional lanes on each side of the Riverside Freeway from the Costa Mesa Freeway to Gypsum Canyon Road.

The Riverside Freeway, the main commuter link between Riverside and Orange counties, produces the longest delays for motorists of any highway in the state.

The $95-million widening, which has been highly rated by Caltrans for reducing delay, will receive $22 million in state assistance out of $48 million requested.

Though Los Angeles and Orange counties received additional funding, there were many more losers than winners. Commissioners approved funding for slightly more than a third of the 149 projects considered during the six-week evaluation process.

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