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$8-Billion Transit Loss Is Feared

Times Staff Writers

If transportation funds are slashed to ease the state budget gap, six Southland counties might lose billions of dollars in federal aid for highways and transit services, regional planners warn.

Without adequate state funding, planners say that major road, bus and rail projects proposed across the region could be delayed, making it difficult to reduce vehicle emissions by deadlines imposed under federal air quality regulations.

Consequently, by some estimates, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura and Imperial counties might lose up to $8 billion, or 75% of their federal transportation dollars over the next six years.

In that worst-case scenario, planners say, the loss represents about one-fourth of all government funds -- from local, state and federal sources -- the counties receive for transportation projects.

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“We are sure to find ourselves short,” said Hasan Ikhrata, director of planning and policy for the Southern California Assn. of Governments. “Unless we can come up with additional funds, this is a very real threat.”

State officials have proposed cutting $1.8 billion in transportation funds to help make up a projected budget shortfall of $34.8 billion through the next fiscal year. The figures are scheduled to be finalized in May. SCAG officials say higher gas taxes and more user fees may be needed to close the gap.

SCAG, which represents the six counties and 188 cities, serves as a regional transportation and urban planning agency. Governed by a 75-member council of elected officials, it is responsible for drafting transportation improvement plans that must conform to federal regulations, such as the Clean Air Act.

Federal funding hinges on meeting air quality regulations designed to steadily cut vehicle emissions by building transit and highway projects that reduce congestion or take vehicles off the street.

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The California Air Resources Board states that the six-county region has until 2010 to comply with the requirements or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can halt funding for new projects.

“There are a lot of people watching this process,” said Jerry Martin, a spokesman for the Air Resources Board. “Some people say [the threat to withhold federal funds] is a red herring.... But there are others who feel strongly, for political reasons, that California could be the place where funds get held up.”

The state, Martin noted, is predominately Democratic and facing a Republican administration in Washington, D.C. But he added that officials in the Los Angeles area have worked hard to meet air quality requirements and might be given the benefit of the doubt if there are delays in meeting regulations.

Officials for the Federal Transit Administration, which provides money for the transportation projects, said SCAG is correct to raise the funding issue but cautioned that it might be too soon to say what will happen. A loss of federal assistance, they said, would primarily affect highway programs.

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The proposed cuts in state funds have triggered intense lobbying in Sacramento by local transportation officials trying to protect sources of money for their agencies.

Assuming the reductions occur, SCAG estimates that its six-county region would lose $1 billion in state funds alone through 2004 and more than $4 billion through 2009.

Planners contend, for example, that the region could fall out of compliance with federal law if the $800-million Eastside light-rail line in Los Angeles, or a $283-million carpool lane project on Interstate 215 in San Bernardino County, is delayed because of state funding cuts.

“In other words, we are going to take from Peter to pay Paul and never get the money back to pay Peter,” SCAG Executive Director Mark Pisano told an Assembly transportation subcommittee in December.

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Orange County’s transportation agency received about $142 million in federal aid last year. It plans to seek almost $2 billion in federal aid over the next six years to help pay for dozens of road and transit projects, including the CenterLine light-rail system. The county stands to lose more than $200 million in state funds if the cuts are made.

“The possibility of a declaration of noncompliance would be very serious,” said Arthur T. Leahy, chief executive of the Orange County Transportation Authority. “The margin between conformity and nonconformity is very narrow.”

In Los Angeles County, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will seek about $8.7 billion in federal funds over the next six years. In 2002, the agency obtained about $800 million in federal aid for transit and highway projects. But MTA officials dispute whether the funding situation has reached the critical stage.

Planning Director Jim de la Loza said the agency recently secured state backing for the proposed Eastside light-rail line and a busway in the San Fernando Valley -- two key projects to help meet federal clean air requirements. De la Loza added that the MTA is not as dependent on the state -- about 70% of its funds come from local sources.

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“The sky is not falling,” De la Loza said. “Everything we are doing to keep these projects going is what the feds are looking for.”

Other planning and transportation officials, however, point to what happened in Atlanta and Houston, where failure to comply with air quality regulations led to environmental lawsuits and threats by the federal government to pull funds.

In 1998, 13 Atlanta-area counties faced the loss of federal aid because they failed to come up with a transportation plan that could rein in vehicle air pollution. Georgia prevented the loss of almost $900 million in federal funds for Atlanta and other parts of the state by imposing its own regional transportation authority.

Three years later, an environmental lawsuit forced transportation planners in Houston to meet federal air quality regulations, averting a potential loss of federal funds earmarked for major highways and rail projects.

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In Southern California, Pisano said state and local governments must look for ways to maintain transportation funding levels to avoid the loss of federal aid. More user fees, gas tax increases and more sales tax initiatives on the county level are possibilities.

In addition, officials say the cost to administer transportation programs must be reduced and that projects with the most potential to fulfill federal requirements should be completed first.

“We are trying to be smart and prioritize our projects to do the critical ones” first, Ikhrata said. “The region has never been out of conformity before. We are hoping for a miracle.”


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