Davis Acts to Keep State Moving With Traffic Initiative

Gov. Gray Davis is about to head down a new road. With the right moves, he could gain substantial political mileage while millions of motorists get less hectic commutes.

The governor later this week will unveil a proposal to ease traffic congestion throughout California. In typical Davis fashion, he'll take a safe, slow approach. But it will be carefully planned, unlike a jerky start in January when his initial venture in transportation programming was widely jeered.

Davis responded then by chewing out his staff and ordering up a well thought-out plan. Since then "we've had endless meetings" with regional transportation experts, local politicians and members of Congress, the governor said in an interview. Recently, his advisors have been consulting legislators and private interests.

"I don't expect everyone to stand up and cheer this, but there's no question it moves the state forward," Davis says. "The only problem people will have is that it may not go as far as they'd like."

The governor will propose a $2.2-billion bond issue for the November ballot, coupled with $2.8 billion in cash from the state's ballooning budget surplus. The hope is to leverage the $5 billion in state money into a $15-billion total package that includes federal and local funding.

The money would be doled out over four years and there could be more--bonds and cash--if the economy keeps booming, Davis says.

"I make no apologies for being a tightwad," he asserts. "I'm not going to commit to programs, no matter how worthwhile, unless I'm confident the necessary funding will be there.

"On the other hand, if this economy sustains itself, then each year we'll make generous allocations. For education and transportation."

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The sophomore governor thus is broadening his horizon beyond education. That's still his first priority, but no longer is it also his second and third.

Davis now is getting into infrastructure. It's no less than you'd expect from the governor of a fast growing state during a hot economy.

In last month's primary, he quietly played a lead role in passing Propositions 12 and 13, the parks and water bond issues, by lending his political team and raising $8 million.

"Clearly, if I had my druthers, I would focus on nothing but education because it's the single most important thing you can do in an information-based economy," he says. "However, people can't work unless they can get to work. At some point, their productivity diminishes from the strain of an ever-increasing commute."

Last year, California motorists spent 836,000 hours each day in traffic jams, one study showed. The California Transportation Commission estimates there is $100 billion in transportation needs.

Davis has chosen a long list of regional projects--highway, rail and bus--that he feels not only will reduce congestion, but produce the wide coalition of political support needed to pass his bills and bonds. Details will be released at news conferences around the state.

It is known, however, that one project Davis would like to help build is the long-proposed light rail line for East L.A. He also wants to add carpool lanes along the Golden State Freeway between the Hollywood and Antelope Valley freeways. And he has targeted the Santa Ana Freeway for major improvements.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, Davis will champion extending commuter rail service from the East Bay to San Jose, a top priority of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

"This is like a triple off the wall," says Davis, a high school baseball player. "It may not be a grand slam home run, but it advances everyone's interests."

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Many legislators may equate it more to a double, if not a bloop single. Davis acknowledges it is not a long-range remedy for growing gridlock. "We'll deal with the long-range issues down the road," he says. "My initial task is to get this package out the door."

Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco) struck out last year trying to persuade the Legislature to place on the ballot a measure making it easier for communities to raise local sales taxes to finance transportation projects. Burton wanted to lower the vote requirement from two-thirds to a simple majority. Davis opposed the idea, fearing he'd be tagged with supporting tax increases.

Davis does, however, see "possibilities" in a Republican idea to require that all state sales taxes paid at the gas pump be used for transportation. Now, practically all the money is spent on non-road projects. "That passes my [no new taxes] litmus test," he says. "It would be in the ballpark of proposals I could consider."

That would be a good Davis move. Before commutes can become less hectic, a bottleneck must be eliminated at the Capitol.

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