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Bumps in the road

Every city wants its share of new transportation funds. Is the state panel in charge up to the job?

March 09, 2007

PROPOSITION 1B, the $19.9-billion transportation bond approved by voters in November, was designed to ensure that the money was distributed fairly and to avoid regional political infighting. But the process has started looking pretty political after all.

Voters have reason to be nervous about that, especially because future decisions will involve money crucial to Southern California's economy: the $2 billion devoted to speeding movement of goods from the state's ports.

Much of the bond money is being distributed by the California Transportation Commission, which evaluates plans and allocates state money for them. The commission had a fairly low profile until the passage of Proposition 1B, but with every community in California looking for a piece of that $19.9-billion pie, the board has come under increased scrutiny. And many politicians don't much like what they see.

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa led several local officials to Sacramento last month after the board's initial list of recommended projects largely bypassed Los Angeles (they won a decision to fund their main priority -- the widening of the 405 Freeway).

Many of the commission's nine members are developers, labor leaders or trucking company executives -- in other words, people who could potentially benefit from its funding decisions. Of greater regional concern is that with the recent departure of Commissioner Esteban Torres, only one member hails from Los Angeles County. Yet L.A. accounts for nearly one-third of the state's population.

The commission's actions are more important than its composition, and there, too, the early signs are troubling. For instance, $2 billion from Proposition 1B is supposed to go to a "Trade Corridor Improvement Fund" to boost the movement of goods. Yet commissioners have suggested that that money may go for highway projects far from any ports and only tangentially related to trade.

In dedicating the first $4.5 billion in bond funds to highway and road projects, the commission stated that it would consider spending Trade Corridor Improvement Fund money on interstates 5, 10, 80 and 580. Though all those freeways are indeed used by trucks carrying cargo containers, that is by no means their primary purpose (as opposed to, say, the 710 Freeway).

There are trade-related transportation projects much more needy, especially improvements to the Alameda Corridor train route between the ports and downtown L.A. Every freight train added to the system takes an average of 280 trucks off the road, and 280 trucks take up the space of 750 cars, according to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

Allocating the trade corridor money probably will take several months; Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration has gotten off to a good start with a strong list of suggested projects. His plan devotes more than three-quarters of the money to Los Angeles and the Inland Empire -- fully justified considering that more than 80% of the goods passing through California go through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Other than $40 million for truck lanes on the 580 Freeway in Alameda County (home to the Port of Oakland), the other freeways singled out by the commission don't merit a mention.

The transportation commission learned last month that its decisions are being watched closely. It should bear this scrutiny in mind when distributing the trade corridor money, which voters intended to pay for projects that will have the biggest possible effect on speeding containers to their destinations, not for projects that didn't make the cut for highway funding.

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