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Letting gridlock loose

When approving developments, local officials have sidestepped laws meant to limit the effects on traffic.

June 09, 2008|Jeffrey L. Rabin and Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writers

When Santa Monica officials approved the massive Water Garden office complex, they predicted the project would generate thousands of good jobs and revive a once-tired industrial neighborhood.

They also predicted a lot of traffic.

Twenty years later, both predictions have come true. Just ask Aundraya Reliford.

Five days a week, Reliford, 32, rises at 5:45 a.m., drives 20 minutes to a train station seven miles from her home in Rialto, in San Bernardino County, and catches the 7:20 a.m. Metrolink to Los Angeles.

During the hour-and-20-minute ride, she reads, sleeps or stares out the window, watching miles of motorists stuck on the freeway. Then, she becomes one of them.

At Union Station, Reliford heads for a parking lot where she has left a second car. She ventures onto the freeways for the final 15-mile, hourlong journey to Santa Monica, where she manages library services for MTV Networks.

Elapsed time: two hours, 40 minutes -- on a good day.

In the afternoon, she does it all again, in reverse.

Her daily journey is "absolutely horrific," she says. "It's not the distance. It's the amount of congestion that makes it just about unbearable." Just getting to the 10 Freeway onramp from her office, in the entertainment-industry hub surrounding Water Garden, can take 20 minutes.

Many factors conspire to produce Southern California's traffic. The most consequential is the collective impact of millions of individual choices. In Reliford's case, her loathing of the commute is outweighed by her love for her home in Rialto, with its big backyard where her two young boys can play safely.

Those choices play out in a region that sprawled long before the freeways were built. The pattern of development in Southern California as far back as the era of the Pacific Electric Railway's Red Cars created a horizontal city, one in which people frequently settled far from where they worked.

But individual decision-making alone does not account for Southern California's massive traffic congestion. Actions by government at the state and local level also bear a big share of the blame.

Two decisions stand out:

* State and local officials have not expanded the region's highways and mass transit systems enough to keep up with population growth.

The population of the five-county Southern California region grew 22% from 1990 to 2006, and the total miles driven by motorists has increased about 42%. But the number of miles of highway in the region has increased by only 7.5%.

Since 2001, Govs. Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, along with state legislators, repeatedly have diverted money from the state's taxes on gasoline to pay for non-transportation programs. Schwarzenegger plans to do so again in the budget for the coming year. Roughly $5.8 billion in highway and mass-transit funds that were diverted during the state's repeated budget crises this decade have not yet been repaid.

While the region's highway capacity has lagged behind population growth, mass transit has not made up the difference. Los Angeles County for the last 25 years has put three-quarters of its voter-approved transportation money into rail and bus systems. Even with the investment of about $7 billion, 85% of commuters still drive.

* At the same time, local officials repeatedly have sidestepped state laws that were supposed to require developers to lessen the traffic-snarling effects of projects.

For years, elected county and city officials across Southern California have put economic development and jobs ahead of mobility, approving major commercial and residential developments without requiring builders to pay enough for improvements needed to handle extra traffic.

All that development contributes to congestion that for the average motorist in L.A. and Orange counties adds up to almost two workweeks of delay each year, according to the Texas Transportation Institute, a think tank at Texas A&M University that compiles annual assessments of congestion nationwide. That's almost double what it was in the 1980s. In Ventura County , congestion-related delays each year consume roughly a workweek of the average motorist's life. The delay in the Inland Empire equals about six workdays.

Traffic has eased slightly on some freeways recently, probably because of the poor economy and high gas prices, but it is only a matter of time before congestion returns in full force.

Water Garden, approved in 1988, provides a case study of how developments pass through loopholes in state laws. The project is a collection of well-landscaped office towers surrounding a man-made pond just north of the 10 Freeway, near Santa Monica's border with Los Angeles.

When Santa Monica officials were debating it, their environmental impact report warned that the development would worsen traffic along city streets and the freeway.

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