Split Develops Over Traffic Improvement Plan : Transportation: A levy on developers hasn't raised enough money. But Galanter and transit officials can't agree on changes.


A traffic management plan designed to tax developers to pay for traffic improvements between Santa Monica and El Segundo has failed to raise enough money to be effective, Los Angeles officials acknowledged this week.

On Tuesday, the City Council agreed that the plan must be strengthened.

But City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, in whose 6th District the plan applies, and officials in the city's Department of Transportation are still debating some of the changes.

The disagreement stems from a philosophical difference: Galanter is pushing a plan she says will minimize the number of cars on the street by offering developers financial incentives, while transportation officials are backing a proposal that they say will force developers to pay as much as possible for traffic improvements.

Executives in the Department of Transportation object, in particular, to Galanter's plan to substantially limit the amount developers have to pay for new roads and traffic signals if they include low-income housing in their projects.

The Galanter proposal could reduce by up to $34 million an anticipated $101 million to be collected from developers under the so-called Coastal Transportation Corridor Specific Plan, said Tom Conner, assistant general manager of the Department of Transportation.

Department of Transportation General Manager S. E. Rowe said a similar proposal Galanter backed previously "could seriously jeopardize the ability of the Specific Plan to effectively produce the needed transportation improvements."

"Housing should not be subsidized out of the transportation money," added Conner. "It should be subsidized separately out of something like a housing fee. That's our basic position."

But Galanter said her housing-credit proposal is an innovative approach that will keep more cars off the road, instead of simply building road improvements for the maximum number of cars.

"The Transportation (Department) approach is get a lot of money and build more roads, build more bridges and build more expressways," Galanter said. "Our approach is get the developers to build something that produces less traffic."

The councilwoman, whose district is slated for massive development, said her proposal will also help bring in more money because she and transportation officials have agreed that developers should be assessed $5,690 for each afternoon rush-hour automobile trip their projects create, instead of the current fee of $2,281.

"What I'm trying to do here is get revenues up by raising the fees," Galanter said, "and get the number of trips down by offering credits . . . for building a development that creates less traffic."

The City Council on Tuesday asked the city attorney's office to draft a new version of the Specific Plan, which was first approved in 1985. Although some details of the new ordinance must be hashed out, the draft will include Galanter's proposal for low-income housing credits.

The amendments seek to shore up an ordinance that has fallen far short of the goals set for it in 1985. City officials said then that the plan--covering the area from Santa Monica to El Segundo and east to the San Diego Freeway--was a novel approach to get developers to pay up to $235 million for traffic improvements.

A "trip-generation" fee of $2,010 was to be levied for each car that new projects put on the road. But the fee, increased annually for inflation, has never accumulated as it was supposed to.

City officials had hoped to collect $9 million a year--$45 million by this year. But so far only $5.3 million has been contributed by builders.

A computerized traffic signal system, recently completed at 87 intersections around Los Angeles International Airport, is the only accomplishment thus far from a long wish list of road widenings, signal synchronizations and other improvements envisioned by the Specific Plan.

Transportation officials attribute the shortfall to several problems, especially delays in developments that will contribute a large part of the fund and a rule that permits developers to pay the fees over 20 years.

The original city plan also anticipated that existing business, and perhaps homeowners, would help pay for traffic improvements through a special assessment district. But the assessment district idea has been scrapped because city officials believe that it would be impossible to get voters to approve it.

"This was the first of the specific plans in the city," said Conner. "It was a new effort, but it was a timid effort and the fee was low."

The City Council two years ago ordered a rewriting of the Specific Plan and city officials and Galanter's office have been working out details since.

All sides agree that the amendment should increase the trip fee to $5,690 and permit payments over just 10 years. The Department of Transportation projects that would raise $101 million of a total $518 million that is needed to build all the area's needed transportation improvements.

Galanter said it is important to adopt the higher fees as soon as possible. "If we don't get the amendments," she said, "we are going to lose a lot of money."

Transportation officials agree that higher fees are needed, but they are concerned that some of the other amendments supported by Galanter will take away much of the anticipated gain.

Under the councilwoman's proposal, builders would get credit equal to two trip fees for every unit of low-income housing they build in conjunction with office and retail development. For example, a developer who built 100 units would receive 200 trip credits, which would save him $1.1 million in trip fees.

Galanter says her proposal will cut traffic because people will not have to use their cars as much if they live near where they shop and work.

Department of Transportation officials, however, said developers should get a maximum credit of 0.7 trips for every housing unit.

They estimate developers might build as many as 3,000 low-income housing units, giving them 6,000 credits under Galanter's proposal. Multiplied by the trip fee of $5,690, that could mean credits totaling $34.1 million.

Galanter said the Transportation Department's figure is probably inflated, since it is highly unlikely that developers will build as many as 3,000 apartments for low-income tenants.

She said less money will be needed under her plan anyway, because housing produces fewer automobile trips than offices or businesses.

"There are lots of ways to reduce traffic congestion," Galanter said, "not just the ones traffic engineers are responsible for."

As councilwoman for the Specific Plan area, Galanter's position is critical. Other City Council members are expected to bow to her wishes, as they usually do for council members on issues within their own districts.

Other issues remain to be decided between Galanter and transportation officials.

One concerns how much credit developers get for roads they build for their projects that also help improve the regional traffic flow.

Transportation officials want builders to get credit only for the portion of road improvements that help the entire region and not just their project. Developers want credit for the entire cost of improvements.

Galanter said she is trying to work out a compromise.

Another proposal for raising money for traffic improvements appears to have hit a roadblock.

Galanter had proposed charging a $1 fee for use of parking lots at Los Angeles International Airport, on top of regular parking fees. Transportation officials support the proposal, which they predicted would raise as much as $9 million a year for traffic improvements.

But the city attorney's office has issued a preliminary opinion that such a fee would be considered a tax and would have to be put to a popular vote before it could be imposed.

Only new airport parking lots could be subject to such a fee and only if their construction was clearly linked to increases in traffic in the region, the city attorney's office has said.

With no immediate plans for new airport parking lots, though, transportation officials are not counting on funds from parking fees.

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