Inland Empire’s Efforts Won’t Halt Road Crunch

Times Staff Writer

Billions of dollars worth of road projects planned for the exploding Inland Empire will do little to ease Southern California’s mounting traffic woes, especially its monstrous commutes, new traffic analyses show.

Delays for San Bernardino County drivers are projected to double by 2030. Riverside County drivers can expect daily delays to quadruple.

The picture isn’t pretty in Los Angeles, Orange or Ventura counties either, which could see traffic problems increase 73%, 113%, and 158% respectively, in spite of $123 billion budgeted for everything from freeway widenings to bus maintenance


“The traffic is coming, no matter how much they spend,” said Hasan Ikhrata, director of planning and policy for the Southern California Assn. of Governments, which models future road traffic based on projected population increases and transportation budgets.

Rush-hour commuters in outlying areas will fare the worst, with separate Riverside County traffic studies showing an “F” rating -- the worst grade possible -- along the Riverside Freeway, Interstates 15 and 215, and State Route 60.

Many experts say gridlock is a fact of life in car-addicted Southern California, and that the Inland Empire’s time has come to face heavy traffic like the rest of the region.

“The fact is, you’re never going to convert Southern California into a walking society. It’s our turn in the box,” said longtime Inland Empire booster and economist John Husing. “Congestion probably will be the single major negative of the growth and prosperity here.”

“Unless you all want to live in apartments in Los Angeles or Orange counties, you really don’t have a choice,” said Riverside County Supervisor Marion Ashley. “We’ve got this thing called the American dream -- owning your own home -- and folks are willing to drive a long way for it.”

Many say Riverside County, where the population is expected to more than double by 2025, is better off than Los Angeles and Orange counties because it still has the political will, the funds, and -- if officials hurry -- enough open space to build roads. Last November, nearly 70% of Riverside voters extended a half-cent sales tax until 2039 to finance highways and other projects.

But others said county officials have kept the door open for development without informing the public of the consequences.

“[Riverside County] officials have known all along that the freeway level of service would be an ‘F,’ they just don’t talk about it,” said Dan Silver, head of the Endangered Habitats League, a Southern California environmental group that monitors growth. “This is the consequence of having developers and builders doing the planning for you.”

Home and road builders disagreed.

Bill Blankenship, deputy director of the Riverside County Building Industry Assn., noted that developers absorb a $6,650 transportation fee on every new home precisely because they want to make the communities livable.

Others noted that traffic would be worse if billions weren’t spent.

“Those dire projections underestimate entirely the cost of doing nothing ... if you didn’t have the resources, and didn’t make the effort, you’d be absolutely certain of paralysis,” said Eric Haley, executive director of the Riverside County Transportation Commission.

In addition to widening the crowded Riverside Freeway between Riverside and Orange counties, four new highways or major expansion projects are planned. Two other roads are already being widened.

“At least we’re doing something -- and the something we’re doing will make a difference,” said Riverside County Supervisor John F. Tavaglione.

Traffic projections, prepared by SCAG staff as part of a regional transportation plan due out in the fall, show that if Riverside County didn’t undertake its road-building program, delays would soar by 851% over three decades, as opposed to 454% with them.

The county has long been hamstrung by topography, with mountains and hills walling it off from Orange and San Bernardino counties, and rugged terrain internally. Riverside County planners have pinned their hopes on enlarging “arterials” -- county roads and neighborhood connectors -- to encourage businesses to move inland. .

But trouble could be looming on these roads as well.

Two weeks ago a new county analysis of traffic that took into account thousands of new developments and zoning-change requests showed gridlock on many major connector streets, particularly in the central county and San Gorgonio Pass areas.

Planners and consultants are now trying to determine if the grim new projections are accurate.

“I call it the spaghetti-sauce map,” said Supervisor Bob Buster, referring to huge splotches of red on the map that signify very heavy traffic. “You have these huge, writhing red lines of traffic.”

Buster, who said he has often been the lone opponent to big projects coming before the board because of traffic concerns, said he and other supervisors may have to reverse some project approvals, phase in construction at a slower pace, or -- in a worst-case scenario -- halt construction for a year or two.

“We certainly don’t agree with that approach ... because it’s development that’s going to pay the transportation fees that are going to build the future road facilities countywide,” said Blankenship.

Supervisor Ashley -- a commercial real-estate executive elected last fall with strong support from developers -- said he and other supervisors had not gone overboard approving developments, but were simply wrestling with the inevitable.

“The people are coming,” he said.

Ashley said adding commuter train lines, encouraging construction of walkable “downtown” community centers in new developments, and other moves could lessen gridlock.

Road planners are meanwhile racing to preserve rights-of-way for new or widened highways before new neighbors move in.

“We have a clean sheet right now in many areas of the county ... but there’s tremendous pressure,” said transportation commission director Haley.

Commission members, including all of the county supervisors, have in several cases already backtracked and instructed planners to look elsewhere when community opposition has been too great.

“If we don’t hurry, we could get squeezed out” of opportunities to build roads and highways, said Ashley.