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That County-Line Jam Is No Accident

Times Staff Writer

In north Orange County, Interstate 5 is a 10-lane superhighway, with the broad shoulders, terra-cotta sound walls and attractive landscaping one might expect along California’s main north-south artery.

Just short of Los Angeles County, however, the artery clogs. It narrows to six lanes, three each way, and sheds its modern features, becoming a 1950s-vintage roadway.

Right about there, many northbound motorists get mad.

“The commute out of Orange County is impossible,” fumed Paul Samarin, a Newport Beach lawyer, while gassing up near his home in Norwalk. “It bottlenecks and it stops.”

Such is the fragmented world of transportation planning in California, where the state has largely left regional planning to counties, and counties’ priorities don’t necessarily match.

Drivers pay the price in time and frustration.

One reason for their plight is a major shift over the last few decades in who controls government money for roads. That power for years resided mostly in Sacramento, with planners from the state Department of Transportation and the state Transportation Commission deciding where freeways were built and which were improved.

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But in 1997, a landmark law gave counties the power to set priorities for 75% of state transportation money. Then, as California grappled with financial problems, it cut transportation spending by billions of dollars.

Urban counties began to take greater charge of their own planning, using money from voter-approved tax measures aimed at unclogging freeways. Local governments also lobbied for federal money for their projects.The result: “Caltrans is the little brother,” said Steve Schnaidt, staff director of the state Senate Transportation Committee. “Now the counties are the big boy on the block.”

The trouble is, the counties often don’t work together. They have very different to-do lists.

Los Angeles County, for instance, has a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax overwhelmingly geared to building and operating mass transit, while Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties have half-cent sales taxes that heavily emphasize highways and roads, though not always the same roads.

And in Ventura County, a half-cent transportation sales tax has twice failed to win the two-thirds majority needed for approval, severely crimping that county’s ability to undertake new projects.

Politics is a complicating factor. To win passage, the transportation taxes -- except in Los Angeles County -- are linked to very specific projects, limiting flexibility and leaving residents of neighboring counties out of the process.

As a result, “you run into problems at county borders,” Schnaidt said.

No better example exists than on I-5 in northern Orange County, where it is known as the Santa Ana Freeway. With voters’ go-ahead, Orange County is working to eliminate the bottleneck at its border. A $251-million project to widen the last two miles short of the L.A. County line starts early next year.

“Say Goodbye to a Bottleneck” reads a colorful brochure from the Orange County Transportation Authority.

But L.A. County doesn’t plan to finish widening even a portion of the Santa Ana Freeway for 10 years. So motorists will be saying hello to the bottleneck again up the road.

According to plans, commuters will have to wait until 2016 to see what is predicted to be a $1.4-billion expansion from the Orange County line through the L.A. County cities of La Mirada, Norwalk, Santa Fe Springs and part of Downey to the junction with the 605 Freeway.

Los Angeles County’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority has other priorities. It has devoted most of its transportation sales tax revenue to completing a subway from downtown Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley, constructing three light-rail lines, upgrading its heavily used bus system and operating the buses and trains.

Meanwhile, OCTA predicts an enormous increase in traffic along the Santa Ana Freeway. Caltrans figures show average daily traffic in 2004 of 188,000 vehicles on I-5 at the L.A.-Orange County line. By 2020, OCTA expects 321,000 vehicles.

Commuters are looking for relief now, not 10 years from now.

“Once you get past the Disneyland area ... the magic of the mouse ends,” said Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Joseph Weimortz Jr., who drove the route for years on his way to work in Norwalk. “It’s like you hit ... the L.A. County wall.”

Unless voters in either county switch gears, the two neighbors will remain radically out of sync. Orange County’s course seems set. Since 1990, when voters endorsed a series of specific projects linked to a half-cent sales tax, 75% of the county’s transportation sales tax money has been spent on roads and highways, according to transportation authority figures.

James de la Loza, the MTA’s former chief planner, agreed that there appears to be “a lack of coordination” between the two counties. “There are huge disconnects.”

That’s partly because L.A. County and Orange County are in different stages of evolution. The core of L.A. County has been more intensely developed for a longer time, so it has struggled to build or expand freeways. More recently, real estate has become prohibitively expensive.

Orange County has had more leeway, with more available land and less political opposition to major road projects.

But the gaps and discontinuities aren’t limited to Orange and Los Angeles counties. They extend to the Inland Empire as well.

When voters in San Bernardino County, for instance, approved their transportation tax in 1989, they were promised a three-lane freeway through the rapidly developing Chino Valley. But Riverside County wasn’t in on the plan.

As the roadway known as Highway 71 approaches that county’s border, it is no longer a freeway and its three lanes each way drop to two.

“They should definitely make it wider,” computer programmer Matt Fatcheree said before embarking on his morning commute from Chino Hills to Irvine.

Eric Haley, executive director of the Riverside County Transportation Commission, acknowledged, in the vernacular of transportation experts, that the mismatch “presents a dysfunctional traffic flow.”

Carpool lanes on Interstate 10 are another head-scratcher. San Bernardino County built 10-mile carpool lanes on the heavily traveled interstate through Ontario.

But the lanes end about five miles after crossing the Los Angeles County line. MTA has no immediate plans for their extension, though that section of I-10 is one of the region’s most crowded corridors.

As the region grows, coordinated transportation planning has become both more necessary and more difficult. Part of the problem is diffused leadership, and part is the lack of a regional vision. Five counties, three Caltrans districts and the Southern California Assn. of Governments are ostensibly involved in making decisions.

“It’s too many people in charge, but nobody in charge to coordinate all of this work,” said Hasan Ikhrata, director of planning and policy at SCAG.

In practice, some transportation experts say, Caltrans and SCAG defer to individual counties, so regional planning amounts to a hodgepodge of sometimes conflicting local agendas, based on what appeals to local voters.

“It’s not a transportation plan,” said Martin Wachs, professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Berkeley. “Each project is designed to appeal to a different constituency.”

Some civic leaders say the debate over whether to widen roadways misses a larger issue. Given the growth expected in Southern California, these officials say, there should be a wider discussion about where to put transit, housing, job centers, shopping and other urban amenities.

“The debate we should be having is: Should we build our cities around people or cars?” said Rick Cole, Ventura city manager and former mayor of Pasadena.

In the absence of that larger discussion, there are some signs that counties can cooperate when traffic problems become too big to ignore.

Crushing commutes on the 91 Freeway connecting Riverside and Orange counties, for example, have helped push officials from both counties to the same drawing board.

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have served as another catalyst for cooperation. The movement of cargo has created vexing traffic problems, prompting transportation officials from around the region to convene regularly in search of answers.

These are promising steps, participants say, but the collaborative gatherings, as so often is the case in Southern California, are not without some discord.

“We fight some,” acknowledged Roger Snoble, MTA’s chief executive.


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