Traffic Flow: It May Be as Good as It's Going to Get

Times Staff Writer

Any Californian who wants to gripe about California's traffic-clogged freeways might do well to start with Bill Bagley. As chairman of the California Transportation Commission, the former state assemblyman is supposed to be the man with the answers.

But, tracked down recently for an interview on a traffic-clogged Orange County freeway, he seemed as frustrated as millions of other California motorists.

"There are no magic answers," Bagley said, maneuvering around a fender-bender that was holding up traffic on the Newport Freeway one recent afternoon. Just moments before, he watched a near-crash caused by what appeared to be a stressed-out driver in a mini-truck who was looking for an edge in the heavy traffic.

Trying to Make a Flight

Keeping one eye on the traffic ahead of him and another on the drama unfolding around him, he glanced nervously at a watch. He had given himself enough time to catch a flight from Ontario, but no matter how much time, it never seems enough on California's freeways. "If I had a magic wand, I'd wave it."

Bagley's frustration, shared with other key state officials, is due in part to the admission that California's traffic problems are here to stay, that the situation today may may be as good as it is ever going to get.

"We have identified $14-billion worth of projects which will simply keep us in a situation where things won't get worse, that is, keep us where we are today," he said.

State officials view 1988 as a pivotal year for the state's transportation system. Voters most likely will be asked to decide two important ballot initiatives designed to pump billions of new dollars into the highway system. But even at that, most of the talk centers on projects designed to maintain the status quo, to keep the gridlock and congestion problems from getting any worse than they already are.

Travel on Highways Rises

State officials say travel on the state's highways rose from 72 billion vehicle miles in 1977 to 102 billion in 1985. They say freeway congestion is increasing faster than the population is growing, even faster than new cars and trucks are appearing on the freeways. State planners figure that there will be 6 million more cars and trucks on the highways in California by the year 2000, enough to just about squeeze into all those new lanes on the drawing boards.

Phillip D. Perry, assistant deputy director of the California Department of Transportation, said during a recent interview: "We are at the stage now where it is basically impossible to build ourselves out of congestion. If you take into account just the dollars alone, it is almost impossible.

"But it also takes awhile to build a freeway or expand one. By the time you finish doing it, the demand has reached the point where it's practically filled again."

Deukmejian's Proposal

Bagley, a personable veteran of the state's political wars for more than 25 years, is out around the state, hoping to drum up political support for Gov. George Deukmejian's proposed $2.3-billion highway funding program that calls for a $1-billion bond issue this year and a $1.3-billion bond issue in 1990.

Even though he heads the commission that oversees the state's 15,200-mile freeway network and Caltrans' annual $3.5-billion budget, his insider's knowledge does not help him once he gets behind the wheel. He resorts to the same shortcuts Californians have been using for years.

He schedules the commute from his Marin County home to his San Francisco law office around the freeway rush hour.

And he knows shortcuts to take when he drives to Sacramento, like weaving through Standard Oil Co. storage tanks near the Richmond Bridge.

The one-time assemblyman advised: "Get to know the local byways in order to avoid freeways."

As part of the answer to the freeway problem, Deukmejian, Bagley and other Republicans are working to place on the June ballot the governor's plan to raise $1 billion for the transportation system through the issuance of short-term general obligation bonds.

If the measure ultimately gets on the ballot, it would represent a historic turn. Transportation in California has always been funded by so-called user fees, like the tax on gasoline and truck weight and motor vehicle license fees, and it has been financed on a pay-as-you-go system.

The governor's proposal is a departure in that general obligation bonds are paid off with general state tax revenues and the payoff is over a period of years.

But for just that reason, it has aroused opposition from Democrats in the Assembly.

Assembly Democrats say the governor's program means that public schools and other state programs would have to start competing for dollars with the costly transportation system.

Rival Bond Measure

Acknowledging the need for additional money for roads and highways, Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda), chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, has drafted a rival $3.3-billion revenue bond measure that would be paid off over 20 years with increased user fees and gasoline tax dollars, a variation on the traditional pay-as-you-go theme.

"Assembly Democrats will never vote to finance highways with general obligation bonds. We agree there is a need, but we won't take the money away from schools, prisons or other programs," Katz said.

Katz, like Bagley, has no illusions about what his bond measure will buy. He believes its chief selling points are that it will provide three times the money that Deukmejian's will and that it will be financed by increases in truck weight fees and other user taxes. But he said even his $3.3 billion is not the answer.

"This is a Band-Aid. It's just a bigger Band-Aid than we have ever seen before," he said.

The governor and legislative leaders are working to find a possible middle ground, a solution using bonds that Katz and Deukmejian can agree upon.

Casting a big shadow over their deliberations is an initiative that has already qualified for the June ballot.

That is a measure sponsored by anti-tax crusader Paul Gann that would earmark revenues generated by the state's 6% sales tax on gasoline specifically for use on highway and mass transit projects.

(The sales tax should not be confused with the 9-cent per gallon state tax on each gallon of gasoline sold in California. Those dollars have always been earmarked for transportation projects and will continue to be.)

Goes Into General Fund

The 6% sales tax on gasoline goes into the state's general fund, where it is mixed with revenues from the income, sales, bank and corporation and other taxes. All sales tax money goes into the pot that is used to support general government services like health, education and prisons.

State officials estimate that if the Gann initiative passes, it could mean an additional $700 million annually for the transportation system.

Gann sponsored the original government spending limitation initiative in 1979 that many believe has contributed mightily to today's transportation money problems. That is because even if the governor and Legislature are willing to raise the tax on each gallon of gasoline, they could not since the state has reached its allowable level of expenditures and the additional revenues raised by the tax would have to be returned to taxpayers in the form of a rebate.

Gann's initiative would modify the limit so that transportation expenditures would no longer be under the restraints of the spending ceiling.

But state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig, teachers' unions and PTA groups are sponsoring a rival measure that will also appear on the June ballot. Their proposal, which would raise the spending limit that acts as a restraint on all state programs, would help schools and other programs as well as transportation programs.

A bloody fight is likely between education and transportation interests. So far, the governor and legislative leaders appear to be content to stay on the sidelines.

Also figuring in the unfolding political scenario are a record number of other bond issues being talked about for the June and November ballots.

Deukmejian, in addition to proposing the $1-billion transportation bond issue, is also pushing a $1.6-billion school construction bond measure. That measure reflects the widespread belief, both inside and outside the Administration, that the public school system is in at least as bad shape as the highway system. The governor for years has been calling education his top priority, and he has not changed his position.

Prison Construction

Prison construction also figures in the mix. Legislative leaders are putting together a bond proposal in the range of $850 million to $950 million to finance expansion of the prison system. Some political leaders view the problem of housing prisoners as more immediate and urgent than constructing highways or investing in improved mass transit projects, although they hope they can do both.

Another $600 million in bond measures is being proposed to finance construction of sewage treatment, toxic cleanup and clean water projects.

Despite the competition for money, some officials believe the magnitude of the transportation problem and the almost universal agreement that the transit system is woefully underfunded will create enough pressure for some kind of meaningful action this year.

As it stands, even without the bond issues, Caltrans is operating on a five-year transportation improvement plan that calls for spending about $12 billion to improve, modernize and maintain the state's transportation system.

Some of the 1,500 projects on the drawing boards include significant freeway lane expansions for the Santa Ana and San Diego freeways in Orange County, completion of the Century Freeway in Los Angeles County and virtual reconstruction of the Ventura Freeway between Universal City and Woodland Hills.

Officials say that unless bonds are approved or some other financing mechanism is found, their five-year transportation plan will have a deficit of $1.4 billion.

Basically, the deficit is being caused because inflation and costs are growing faster than the revenues available for transportation projects. The problem stems from the 9-cent per gallon gasoline tax. Had the tax been indexed, say, to the price of gasoline or an inflation factor, revenues would have kept pace with the costs of maintaining the freeway system. But today's fuel-efficient cars have actually reduced the number of gallons used per car. Even though there are more cars on the road today, the revenues from the tax have not kept pace with rising maintenance costs.

50th in Nation

California today ranks 50th among states in the amount of per capita support for transportation it receives from taxpayers.

Even so, the state's investment in actual dollars is significant.

The summary of Deukmejian's proposed $44.3-billion budget for 1988-89 contains six pages chock-full of descriptions of projects either under way or planned for the future.

The budget contains $1.7 billion to fund about 1,500 new highway projects in California in 1988, although that figure includes the 17-mile Century Freeway, which is costing a staggering $100 million a mile to build. The rest of Caltrans' proposed $3.5-billion budget is used to support and operate the existing transportation network.

Deukmejian's budget proposes hiring 1,200 new Caltrans employees and lays the groundwork to contract with private firms for the equivalent of another 800 positions.

The new jobs would help speed up completion of new freeways and transit projects and cut into a $500-million backlog in projects. Caltrans, in recent years, has not been adequately staffed to keep up with even the projects that it has the money to finance. Caltrans is running about 40% behind schedule.

Efforts are also under way to get cars moving faster on the existing freeways. Deukmejian's plan also gives more money and a big boost to regional transit agencies.

Much of the money is going to traditional blacktopping and highway work, but a substantial investment is also being made to develop state-of-the-art road sensors, closed-circuit monitors and other computerized systems that officials hope will increase the traffic flow. Deukmejian, in his State of the State address earlier this month, said the idea was to replace "high-tension highways with high-tech highways."

Donald L. Watson, the interim director of Caltrans since the retirement of Leo J. Tombatore in December, said the department is experimenting with a number of different strategies.

For example, when the Ventura Freeway gets a face-lift, Caltrans will use the same roving service trucks that until now have been limited to the San Francisco Bay Bridge. The trucks will tow stalled cars off the freeway to surface streets or give motorists with empty tanks a free gallon of gasoline.

"We have to get creative as the situation gets worse," Watson said.

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