The morning commute is a fact of life in L.A., dues the gods take for the lovely weather. You leave your driveway at a hopeful sprint and limp lamely toward the finish line, swerving around big rigs, thumping over potholes and feeling oddly grateful for the privilege of having hit 25 at 8 a.m. on the Santa Ana Freeway.
But if all this has become an annoying weekday headache that motorists have learned to live with, a peek into the future suggests that the city is on the brink of a 21st century traffic nightmare.
With California positioned as gateway to booming Pacific Rim trade, experts predict that truck traffic could nearly double on major L.A. freeways in the next 20 years. And the notorious rush hour, like morning sickness in pregnancy, could become a cruel misnomer for a condition that lasts all day.
The prospects of averting, or at least lessening, those problems depend heavily on decisions that lawmakers in Washington and, to a lesser extent, Sacramento expect to make this year.
In Washington, Congress this week continues hearings on a massive transportation bill that will determine the quality of life on the nation’s highways into the next century. And California is looking for some relief.
“If the growth trend continues, as much as 70% of the traffic on the Pomona Freeway, the I-5 and the 15 will be used by trucks. Where are the cars going to sit?” asks Mark Pisano, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Governments. “If the federal government doesn’t help us, who will?”
With the federal budget growing tighter, the fierce competition among states for highway money promises to be a battle royal, and California lawmakers in Washington are responding with a promise that is unusual for them: Republicans and Democrats are agreeing to work together to get maximum funds for the state.
"[We] will show you a California delegation strikingly different from what you have seen in the past,” vowed Rep. Bob Filner (D-San Diego), a member of the House Transportation Committee.
Experts say the consequences of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act--known by the shorthand phrase “Iced Tea,” derived from the acronym ISTEA--are hard to overstate. This is one big pot of money--approximately $20 billion a year for the next six years--to be divvied up among the 50 states.
“This is the kind of bill that will affect every Californian in their daily life--whether you drive an automobile or not, whether you travel or not,” said Caltrans spokesman Jim Drago. “Everything you utilize in your daily life at some point crosses the transportation system in the Golden State. Keeping California moving is something that has repercussions far beyond its borders.”
Among the remedies transportation official seek are truck-only lanes to segregate big rigs from automobiles, grade crossings that let cars circumvent slow-moving trains, expanded mass transit and additional roads and bridges.
All of that could mean billions of federal dollars pouring into the state, and thousands of jobs. But California will have a tough case to make as it competes with 49 other states for a chunk of a federal grant that is bigger than that for welfare and second in size only to that for Medicaid.
“The battle over highway funds is always one of the preeminent formula fights that Congress faces,” said Tim Ransdell, executive director of the California Institute, a Washington think tank. “Whether other states like California or not, whether they are jealous of it or not, the battle over transportation is one in which all 50 states fight tooth and nail.”
The fight is not only among states, but potentially within California as well. In Sacramento, lawmakers from the north and south of the state are divided over how to use precious transportation dollars. Bay Area legislators are pressing for funds to replace the eastern section of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Taking that money out of the overall funds available for transportation projects statewide would take away from projects in Southern California.
The money at the center of the fights comes primarily from gasoline taxes--at the federal level, the 18.3 cents a gallon motorists pay each time they go to the pump. Californians, because they drive so much, contribute more than any other state, 10% of the total nationwide fund.
But that is not the only reason state officials believe California should get the biggest share of the pot. With four busy seaports, several major airports and its proximity to the Pacific Rim and Mexico, the state is pivotal to the transport of goods that move in and out of the country.
About one-third of all the nation’s imports enter through California, and 60% of them move on to other states by truck or train. The diesel-spewing rigs, loaded with everything from tennis shoes to computer chips, are often bound for another state as they box in motorists, tear up the highways and occasionally contribute to traffic accidents.
“In a global world you need to have the infrastructure to compete, and the federal government has to help a state like ours deal with the global role it is establishing,” said Pisano of the Southern California Assn. of Governments, which prepares the regional transportation plan for Southern California. “If the federal government doesn’t recognize and carry out its role, then the country ultimately will not be able to compete globally.”
With world trade booming and California recovering from a five-year recession, transportation officials say traffic conditions are bound to get worse in the next 20 years. Airport cargo is expected to triple and port cargo to double by then, meaning more trucks moving freight along California’s beleaguered roads and trains holding up the flow of traffic.
In a state where motorists collectively waste more than a million hours a day sitting in traffic, experts warn that California’s middle-aged infrastructure cannot handle much more. And without additional federal, state and local programs, transportation officials predict that the delay will soar to an unthinkable 4 million hours a day by 2020.
As California lawmakers seek more money to avoid that future, a chief concern involves the arcane formula that federal officials use to divide the money. Currently, that formula calls for highway funds to be divided based on population and road miles traveled, using 1980 census figures. Under that formula California has received back in federal road aid less than what that the state’s drivers have paid in the form of gasoline taxes. Other states have done far better.
Because of the state’s role as an entry point for freight, California officials say it is crucial to have the amount of freight a state moves added into the new formula.
Lawmakers also want to prevent the White House from using any of the money for deficit reduction, which would leave less for transportation.
The Clinton administration is scheduled to make its preliminary proposal at a House subcommittee hearing this week as Congress moves forward with a series of hearings. The target date for passage of the transportation bill is this summer.
If California has one thing in its corner, it is size--its 52-member delegation is the largest in the House and accounts for nearly a quarter of the votes needed to get a bill passed.
But the California members are notorious for their inability to agree. Rep. Jay C. Kim (R-Diamond Bar), who chairs a House transportation subcommittee, this month formed a task force aimed at holding the California voting bloc together. Members are being encouraged to temporarily set aside individual district needs and concentrate on the greater good of the state.
Over the last six years, California averaged $1.8 billion a year in federal highway money--about 90% of what its motorists paid in gasoline taxes. This time the state hopes to get back whatever it takes to keep goods and people moving through the country
“That could mean more than what we pay into the system, given the role we play as the gateway for the country,” Pisano said.
Kim, a civil engineer who designed roads before he was elected to Congress, was optimistic that California would prevail.
“I think so,” he said. “But anything can happen in politics.”
Times staff writer Mark Gladstone in Sacramento contributed to this story.
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Federal Transportation Funds
Funding for the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act--the major federal transportation bill--comes mostly from an 18.3-cent-per-gallon gas tax motorists pay at the pump. The money is used to build and maintain the nation’s roads and transit. California pays the most. It gets back the most. It may need the most.
FEDERAL HIGHWAY MONEY
1992-95 spending: $79.8 billion.
California received: $8.5 billion (or 10.7% of the total spend nationwide).
California paid: $10.7 billion, mostly at the pump.
As gateway to the Pacific Rim, the state carries a heavy burden of seaport and air traffic to move cargo--shoes, computers, cauliflower--much of which benefits other states. The price? Californians sit in traffic and at train crossings, and roads are torn up by big trucks. Here are some Southern California statistics:
Imports: A third of the nation’s imports come into Southern California ports and airports. Traffic at those entryways is expected to double--triple in some cases--over the next 20 years.
Traffic: Forty percent of Southland traffic on California 60 and Interstates 5 and 15--the three freeways most affected by cargo--is truck traffic. If growth trends continue, trucks will make up as much as 70% of traffic on those freeways in 20 years.
Congestion: About 1,000 miles of Southern California freeways are classified as severely congested, which means traffic does not average more than 18 mph during morning and afternoon rush hours. Without relief, the congestion is expected to triple by 2020.
Sources: U.S. Department of Treasury, Southern California Assn. of Governments