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Removing Roadblocks to Prosperity

Southern California’s future can be tremendous. The region will add 6.7 million people and 4 million jobs in the next 20 years, says a new study by the Southern California Assn. of Governments.

The region can become the hub of a great Southwestern corridor of commerce extending to Houston and connected to Mexico’s economic development.

But the region will have a miserable future of congestion, air pollution and economic stagnation unless it makes long-term investments in transportation, says the plan, titled CommunityLink21, which was prepared over the last two years by a council of 77 elected officials from Imperial, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties. A vision for San Diego’s future is included in the plan’s conclusions.

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The conclusions, on the whole, are reassuring. Orange County will see a 68% increase in jobs in the next two decades, the study predicts. A 30% rise in jobs is forecast for Los Angeles, although the areas of Lancaster, Palmdale and Simi Valley will see a tripling of population and a quadrupling of jobs.

The most notable growth, a doubling of employment and population, will occur in San Bernardino and Riverside counties--the region called the Inland Empire that is larger than most states. The Inland Empire will become the focus of Southern California’s growth, as the San Fernando Valley and Orange County were in other eras.

Yet deep shadows are being cast on the rosy forecast. The Inland Empire’s growth and that of foreign-trade-related traffic will worsen already severe freeway congestion, says Jim Gosnell, SCAG’s director of planning. Trucks hauling freight to the rail yards of San Bernardino from Los Angeles International Airport and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are slowed to a crawl even now on the San Gabriel River (605) and Pomona (60) freeways. Commuting to Orange and Los Angeles counties on the Riverside (91) and Pomona freeways is lengthy and laborious.

“Some 40,000 people a day commute now on the 91, and that number will grow to 120,000 a day in the next 20 years,” says Mark Pisano, executive director of SCAG. Congestion will worsen even allowing for road improvements already budgeted, he says. The federal and state governments recently approved $700 million for Inland Empire freeway improvements in the next six years. The Foothill Freeway (210) will be extended from La Verne to San Bernardino; special truck lanes will be constructed on the 215 in Riverside, among other improvements.

But bolder solutions will be needed, says the SCAG study. In addition to more special lanes on freeways, high speed mag-lev (for magnetic levitation) trains will be needed “to move people and goods around this vast region,” says Pisano. A consortium of French and German companies and a U.S. group that includes Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Bechtel are interested in a mag-lev project, he says.

Such talk sounds like a pipe dream in a region that is already 10 months behind schedule on the critical Alameda Corridor project, which is designed to speed freight through Los Angeles and reduce freeway congestion.

But SCAG studies are not pipe dreams. The agency, which brings together officials of the region’s cities, is the designated planner for federal and state expenditures. To be sure, SCAG is a planning agency--it cannot force an airport or a road to be built. But its findings have the force of judgment on what should be done.

Unless Southern California deals with the challenges outlined in CommunityLink21, “it will not solve its transportation problems, it will not solve its air quality problem and it will not support its economic growth,” says Pisano.

He is disappointed that Los Angeles is not planning any expenditure to ease congestion for Palmdale residents commuting to work in the San Fernando Valley.

Yet there is great energy in some parts of the region. The Inland Empire is thinking expansively. San Bernardino’s new mayor, Judith Valles, has just persuaded General Electric Credit to expand in her city, adding 600 jobs. And area universities led by UC Riverside have formed an effort called Core21 to encourage entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to form companies that take advantage of university research. The group extends from Harvey Mudd College and Cal Poly Pomona in the west to the University of Redlands in the east, says Noel Keen, a UC Riverside plant pathology professor who helped found Core21 a year ago.

And the vision of the 77 elected officials who produced the SCAG study is expansive and long-term. They foresee freight movements increasing along a Southwest corridor from Southern California through Arizona and New Mexico to San Antonio and Houston, moving Mexican exports bound for the Pacific and Asian imports bound for Mexico. To handle such increased freight movements, Interstate 10 from Los Angeles and Interstate 8 from San Diego will have to be modified for truck lanes.

The officials do not flinch from the contentious issues of airport expansion. They count on El Toro International Airport being built and handling at least 20 million passengers a year by 2020 and LAX handling 90 million--up from 54 million at present.

They foresee some San Diego passenger and freight traffic moving through a converted March Air Force Base in Riverside County. And they foresee new forms of transportation easing congestion and pollution. “A mag-lev train will be running between LAX and Ontario airport within 10 years,” Pisano predicts.

Most important, they think of Southern California as a single, interdependent area. And that’s a necessity if the region is to cope with the good fortune coming its way.


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