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Planners Seek Solution to Suburban Gridlock : Congress Is Urged to Shift Focus From Interstate Projects to Local Funding to Cut Traffic Problem

Times Staff Writer

It was the postwar American Dream. When Congress approved the Interstate Highway System in 1944, it paved the way for about 44,000 miles of new roads that would link cities from coast to coast and whisk commuters from suburban homes to downtown jobs.

Now the interstate system is virtually complete, a monument to America’s love affair with the automobile. But in the nation’s rapidly growing suburbs, drivers face more woes than ever. From Orange County to Long Island, millions of motorists are caught up in massive traffic jams, fighting their way through streets that were never designed to handle so many cars.

Stop-and-Go Commute

For a growing number of Americans, the drive from their home to a nearby shopping center has come to rival the ordeal of a stop-and-go commute to work. Unforeseen 40 years ago, suburban congestion has become the fastest-growing traffic problem in America today.

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But it is only recently that Washington has begun to take notice. Federal highway programs have been primarily designed to build freeways, leaving state and county governments to resolve congestion on local streets. This year, however, Congress will start drafting a new blueprint for the nation’s $14-billion federal highway program, and experts predict that metropolitan gridlock will at last be a prime target.

“Clearly, we’re facing problems in the suburbs that were not envisioned years ago,” said Rep. Glenn M. Anderson (D-San Pedro), the chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee. “As we decide the future of the highway program, we have to be aware of the need for solutions. . . . The economic health of the nation depends on it.”

Indeed, the failure of suburban streets to handle the growing number of cars has caused heavy traffic jams on the nation’s interstates, as many motorists now use freeways to travel 2 to 3 miles as part of their daily commute. That, in turn, has made it difficult for millions of trucks across the nation to maintain on-time deliveries for their cargoes, causing delays and economic problems for a multitude of businesses.

“Ultimately, this local problem becomes a barrier to interstate commerce,” said Robert Farris, director of the Federal Highway Administration. “All of these transportation issues are interrelated, and we’ve got to start looking at them simultaneously.”

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For those reasons, Anderson’s panel will hold hearings on myriad transportation problems this year, including suburban congestion, crumbling bridges, crowded interstates, mass transit needs and the environmental consequences of building more highways. If all goes as planned, Congress will approve a new Surface Transportation Act in 1991, the first of the “post interstate” era.

The distinction is important because a broad coalition of transportation experts and state and local officials is urging Congress to shift its attention away from freeway projects. In particular, they want federal funds now earmarked for highway work to be distributed with fewer strings attached so cities and suburbs can have greater flexibility in devising ways to relieve their jammed streets.

Few of them doubt the importance of maintaining and upgrading the interstate system, which represents a multibillion-dollar investment, but they argue that other needs are equally important.

On the local level, this could mean more projects to widen suburban boulevards, synchronize traffic lights, launch light-rail systems and experiment with van-pooling programs.

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Reducing Truck Activity

In California, planners say, it could speed up completion of toll-road projects in Orange County and efforts to reduce congestion on Victory Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley. Programs to reduce the number of trucks on the Long Beach and San Diego freeways could also benefit.

“We are past the point in this country where we can just keep building freeways to reduce congestion,” said Jim Beall, a San Jose city councilman and member of the “Transportation 2020" task force, a national study group created by transportation officials to find new solutions for traffic problems. “We shouldn’t have to spend money on freeways just because that’s the only way Washington says the money can be spent.”

In drawing up the new plan, many experts say, it is crucial that Washington avoid trying to devise one cure for suburban congestion, because its forms and causes differ substantially from one community to the next across the nation.

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“There is no magic bill that Congress can pass into law that will solve this problem,” said Francis B. Francois, executive director of the Assn. of State Highway and Transportation Officials. “If there are 50 different metropolitan areas with the problem, then 50 different answers are needed. What works in Los Angeles won’t work in Boston, and that’s why there needs to be more flexibility in the system.”

Conflicting Needs

But getting Congress to agree to such sweeping changes may not be easy, given the conflicting needs of urban and rural communities, said one House transportation aide. States such as Idaho and Montana are heavily dependent on federal funds for their roads, and they might oppose a new division of funds that focuses more on metropolitan problems.

It may be even more difficult to increase federal spending on road programs, as members of Transportation 2020 and some in Congress have urged. The blue-ribbon group has suggested that annual spending by all levels of government on highway projects, now some $63 billion, eventually be increased to $100 billion, to maintain bridges and roadways.

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That may be unlikely, however, given the federal government’s reluctance to spend all the money now being raised for highways.

Since 1956, the sole source of funds for the program has been the federal gasoline tax, which goes into a special account called the Highway Trust Fund. In recent years, Congress has withheld spending about 10% of the money flowing into the trust fund to help offset the nation’s $155-billion budget deficit. Currently, while $14 billion is distributed annually for highways, there is an unused surplus of about $13.6 billion in the fund.

House Rejection Cited

Anderson and others would like to see that money freed up for transportation projects, including about $1 billion for work in California. But they have lost several House votes to exempt the highway funds from budget cutbacks.

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Another potential barrier to increased transportation spending would be a proposed hike in the federal gasoline tax, now being discussed by members of Congress as a deficit-fighting measure. Highway advocates fear that such an increase in the 9 cents per gallon federal tax would discourage many states from raising their own gasoline taxes and thus retard the growth of locally sponsored transportation programs.

In California, transportation officials are watching these battles closely.

“We’re going to be monitoring Congress carefully, to see how they change the highway program,” said Robert Best, director of Caltrans, the state’s transportation agency. “What happens in Washington matters very much to us here.”

Few dispute the need for change. Federal, state and local officials agree that the current highway program is geared to a bygone era of sleepy bedroom suburbs and commuters heading for distant, downtown jobs. In the last 30 years, there has been an explosive growth in the size and economic importance of American suburbs.

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Growth in Jobs Soar

From 1960 to 1980, the number of jobs located in the suburbs grew from 14 million to 33 million. More than 25 million commuters drive every day from a suburban home to a suburban job, or 38% of all trips. Not surprisingly, the suburb-to-suburb commute has become the nation’s most prevalent route of daily transportation, according to a demographic study by the Eno Foundation for Transportation.

As a result, state and local officials are demanding that the federal highway program keep pace with this shift.

“I don’t think a lot of people are expecting that there will be a great deal more money from the federal government,” said Monte Ward, government affairs director for the Orange County Transportation Commission. “But if local governments had a freer hand in spending these funds, it could make a real difference.”

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Orange County, where traffic congestion has become a way of life, is a case in point. Local officials are committed to freeway improvements but they are also eager to use federal funds more creatively on other efforts.

Currently, the county is moving forward with plans, using federal funds, for three toll roads that would give motorists an alternative to traffic-choked freeways.

Rail Service Possible

In addition, county officials are considering opening commuter rail service on the existing Los Angeles-to-San Diego rail corridor. Under the plan, commuters could ride from Irvine to downtown Los Angeles or from San Juan Capistrano to downtown Santa Ana.

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To do so, however, would require a more flexible use of federal money, diverting highway funds to improve stations and acquire rail cars, Ward said. Under the present federal program, he noted, mass transit funds “are geared toward traditional patterns in the East, where suburban areas surround the big city.”

In Southern California, where suburbs have grown without a definable city center, “we don’t compete well for those funds,” he said. “It’s another reason why there should be more freedom to move funds around.”

Finally, a more flexible federal program could allow the county to spend more on streamlining the traffic flow on key arterial streets such as Beach and Katella boulevards.

“Right now, federal highway programs don’t allocate much money to such projects, but if they did, you could make these kinds of decisions,” he said. “You could decide that it might be more important to synchronize traffic signals on Beach Boulevard than to spend all of your money on freeways.”

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Conditions May Worsen

Without these improvements, experts believe traffic congestion in Orange County and other suburban areas will worsen. Eventually, local, state and federal officials will have to work together on ways to link housing growth with transportation and plan future development throughout these regions, they say.

“I think the public is concerned about congestion, even though they haven’t yet pegged it as a national issue,” said Ray Barnhart, former head of the Federal Highway Administration.

“But if we don’t take intelligent steps now, we’re going to be looking at a 50% increase in Los Angeles traffic over the next 30 years. If we do nothing to expand the capacity down there, you might as well shut the community down.”

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