Suit Accuses County of Misusing Transit Funds : Courts: Environmentalists say diverting the money to road projects violated state law. Local leaders express alarm.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County transportation officials violated state law by diverting millions of dollars earmarked for trains and buses to street and road improvement, according to a lawsuit filed this week by a Sacramento-based environmental group.

In a suit filed in Ventura County Superior Court, the Planning and Conservation League asks that future county transportation funds be frozen unless the Ventura County Transportation Commission spends the money on public transit.

"Ventura is the worst example in the state of a county ripping off transit funds to pay for roads," said Jim Knox, urban affairs director for the league. "It is time to do something about it."

As news of the suit rippled through the ranks of traffic engineers and city leaders Wednesday, many expressed alarm, saying they rely on the money to keep potholes filled and roads smooth. But the league says Ventura County is one of the few counties in California that does not devote the bulk of the funds to public transit.

Since 1971, the state Transportation Development Act has required that 1/4-cent of the state sales tax go into a fund for public transit. Local leaders are then left to divvy up the funds to fulfill transit needs that are "reasonable to meet." If there is any money left, state law says it can be spent on streets and roads.

In 1994, the Transportation Commission interpreted those guidelines to allow $8.7 million of the county's $14-million share of the fund to be spent on streets and roads.

Those figures, however, are somewhat misleading. In Simi Valley, for instance, the city uses all of its $2 million in state transportation development funds for streets and roads, paying for its bus system and other public transit projects out of the city's general fund. Funding transit projects in this manner gives the city more flexibility, Mayor Greg Stratton said.

"The state has certain guidelines, like what level of ridership you need to keep a bus line going," he said. "We wanted to be a little more forgiving, and this way we can."

Bill Davis, a Simi Valley city councilman who also serves on the commission, called the suit bogus. He said public hearings in February determined that the public transit needs of residents in Ventura County are being met.

"We are meeting the needs that are reasonable to meet," Davis said. "This suit is only going to end up hurting everyone."

If the commission is forced to stop allocating the money to road repair, the city of Oxnard could be especially hard hit. The city, which gets the largest single apportionment of transportation development funds in Ventura County, is set to receive about $3 million in the coming fiscal year. About $2 million is budgeted for bus and train service, and the rest for road paving and traffic lights. That road money accounts for about one-quarter of the city's street maintenance budget.

"If we lose that money, you're going to see some streets falling apart," said Ted Moranda, construction project coordinator for the city. "It is not going to be pretty."

The suit comes at a time when Ventura County residents have more public transit options than ever before.

It wasn't long ago that westbound commuter trains to Ventura County stopped short of the Conejo Grade and a bus ride from Simi Valley to Thousand Oaks required an hours-long detour into the San Fernando Valley.

Public transit in Ventura County has come a long way since: A new countywide bus service links all 10 cities and Metrolink trains whisk commuters from as far west as Oxnard to Downtown Los Angeles.

But much more should be done, according to Neil Moyer, named as a plaintiff on the suit. Moyer, president of the Ventura County Environmental Coalition, said the money now being spent on roads could be used to improve bus service, to increase the number of Metrolink trains to Camarillo and Oxnard, and to extend Metrolink service to Ventura.

"We're pumping all this money into the roads in this county when there is a lot more that could be done to improve public transit," Moyer said. "It's time we finally spend that money the way it was intended to be spent."

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