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Officials Fear Freeway Crisis

Times Staff Writers

In north Los Angeles County, where freeway commuter traffic has slowed to a crawl over the last few years, residents of the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys fear worsening gridlock as housing development continues to boom.

“It seems like they keep throwing apartment buildings and houses on every open piece of land,” said Canyon Country resident Eric Williams, whose commute to Hollywood now consumes 90 minutes every morning, double what it took four years ago. “You can see the traffic getting worse and worse up there.”

Already considered the county’s fastest-growing region with more than 500,000 residents, the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys are facing a potential transportation crisis, officials and planners say. Not only is the rapid population growth expected to outpace proposed transportation remedies, but also some current congestion-relief projects have been put on hold because of budget shortages.

During rush hour on the Golden State Freeway (Interstate 5), the average speed for motorists is 26 mph, according to the Southern California Assn. of Governments. That could slow to 11 mph by 2020, without any new projects. But even with freeway and transit improvements, average speeds are expected to slow to 14.5 mph.

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On the Antelope Valley Freeway (14), the current rush-hour speed of 18 mph would grind down to 9.5 mph by 2020 if nothing is done to improve traffic, according to SCAG. If all the projects are completed, speeds would average 12.3 mph.

Newhall Ranch, approved May 27 by the county Board of Supervisors, is just one of several large subdivisions that could soon be built in the region, where some of the Southland’s remaining undeveloped land could fill up in the next 30 years with more than 1 million new residents.

The Golden State Freeway and Antelope Valley Freeway -- twin lifelines linking the region to the rest of the county -- would be hit hardest.

By 2025, traffic is projected to double on the Golden State Freeway near Santa Clarita, which already carries nearly 200,000 vehicles a day, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the California Department of Transportation. On the Antelope Valley Freeway, serving Palmdale and Lancaster, the current daily vehicle volume -- which tops 100,000 in some segments -- is expected to triple.

Proposed housing subdivisions near the two freeways include the 23,000-home Centennial project, near the Golden State Freeway Grapevine and the Kern County line. In the Antelope Valley, about 13,000 homes could be built as part of the master-planned Ritter Ranch and Anaverde projects, the latter of which is under construction. And the developer of the Las Lomas project hopes to build 5,800 homes south of Santa Clarita near the Golden State and Antelope Valley Freeway interchange, already a choke point during rush hour.

For now, planners are focusing on traditional solutions, particularly widening freeways.

In the last few years, Caltrans added a carpool lane in each direction on about 30 miles of the Antelope Valley Freeway. Along the Golden State Freeway, Caltrans workers have been replacing bridges and widening the interchange at California 126.

MTA planners recently proposed $2-billion worth of projects to widen the two freeways by several lanes in each direction and quadruple Metrolink train and bus service.

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Other ideas, such as burrowing a car or light-rail tunnel through the San Gabriel Mountains, have been rejected as environmentally infeasible and outlandish, while a high-speed rail line would be decades away, if ever.

Even if all the proposed projects are implemented, planners say, the region’s transportation system would still be overburdened by the influx of new residents.

“I don’t think you have enough money to build your way out of this,” said Hasan Ikhrata, SCAG’s director of transportation planning. “It is dire; it’s going to be more so in the next 10 years.”

Money Drying Up

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Finding money for projects also will be tough. In April, the MTA board put a $39-million, 6.2-mile carpool lane project for the Antelope Valley Freeway near Palmdale Airport on hold for at least two years -- although its design was nearly completed and construction imminent -- because of the state budget crisis. The delay of that project does not bode well for other north county ideas in the pipeline, planners say.

And even when money becomes available, it’s uncertain where the north county projects would stand in the funding queue because of other backlogged projects.

In the meantime, few improvements are planned south of Santa Clarita to accommodate the expected population explosion. While MTA’s proposal would add two carpool lanes, one regular lane and one truck-only lane to the I-5 near Santa Clarita, only one carpool lane is being planned on the freeway below that area.

The congestion will likely bottleneck through the San Fernando Valley and possibly into downtown Los Angeles, with ripple effects on such connecting corridors as the Hollywood Freeway.

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“The whole stretch is going to be congested,” said Brian B. Lin, an MTA planning manager for the region.

Some say the best way to relieve congestion has nothing to do with improving freeways or public transit, used by only 2% of the area’s commuters. Instead, they say, the key is to create more jobs closer to commuters’ homes.

Currently, the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys have a jobs-to-household ratio of about 1.1, meaning there is slightly more than one job for every household, according to SCAG.

“You want to have 1.5 jobs per house,” said David Myers, president of the Greater Antelope Valley Economic Alliance. “The region needs to be concerned about the jobs-housing balance.”

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But based on the northern cities’ population and employment projections, the jobs-to-household ratio for the region is expected to drop to .75 by 2030.

Still, a selling point for such projects as Newhall Ranch is its promise of 19,000 jobs in new office and industrial parks. County planners estimate that eventually, because of local job opportunities, only 10% of Newhall Ranch residents will leave the Santa Clarita Valley for work.

No Guarantee

Others, including county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, are skeptical. Creating jobs next to housing, Yaroslavsky said, does not guarantee that residents will work there. He suggested that such projects as Newhall Ranch may add to congestion by attracting commuters from other areas.

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While acknowledging that Newhall Ranch would put new strains on the freeway system, Bob Haueter, a field deputy for county Supervisor Mike Antonovich, said the developer is taking steps to soften the effect, including building 30 miles of roads and paying for improvements to major interchanges in the area, such as the Magic Mountain Parkway on- and offramps at the I-5.

Mark Yamarone, Santa Clarita’s transportation director, said there may be some validity to Yaroslavsky’s position. But his city’s expanding job market was the key to reducing the number of Santa Clarita commuters from about 80% of its work force to less than 60% over the last decade.

And all that traffic could be helping the cause.

“One wicked problem of transportation planning,” Yamarone said, “is that as congestion gets worse, the incentive might be higher to live closer to work.”

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