Stuck on the 405

ANYONE WHO HAS ever sat in traffic in Los Angeles -- and that's just about everyone who has ever visited Los Angeles -- knows how crowded our freeways are. Yet state officials have inexplicably decided not to do as much as they can as soon as they can to make the region's roads less congested.

Last November, state voters approved a whopping $19.9 billion in transportation bond funds. L.A.'s harried commuters might have expected that the county's share of the money would be reasonably commensurate with its share of the population: 28%, or about $5.5 billion overall. Instead, the California Transportation Commission has recommended that L.A. get less than 12% in the first distribution of the money.

It's bad enough that the commission's staff axed projects such as carpool lanes on the 10 Freeway, one of the nation's busiest. Worse was its decision to dump a widening of the 405 that the Legislature put on the fast track last year. Fast-tracking allowed the plan to add a carpool lane on the northbound 405 between the 10 and 101 to proceed as a "design-build" project, meaning construction could start before a design was completed.

That designation may have been what confused state officials. They say the project wasn't included because they inferred that construction couldn't start until 2011. Because of the design-build designation, however, local transit planners say the bulldozers could easily start moving in 2009. Any delay in funding could make a big difference, not only because it would put off the start date but because it would endanger $130 million in federal funding.

John Barna, executive director of the commission, defended the list of initial projects last week. He said the bond money shouldn't just be distributed based on a region's population but on projects' readiness for construction, potential for congestion relief and their geographic balance. Well, the 405 is ready for construction sooner than many of the projects recommended for approval. It involves the busiest stretch of the most congested freeway in the United States. And it's in a region that sorely needs transportation funds.

The commission's board is to meet today to discuss the recommendations for the first $2.8 billion in bond funds, and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa plans to be there to plead L.A.'s case. It's unlikely he'll be alone. Bay Area officials are also protesting their meager share of the funds, and there are grumbles from elsewhere in the state.

Such complaints are to be expected, of course -- traffic is bad all over -- but the board may be needlessly asking for trouble. It is authorized to disburse $4.5 billion in the first round, but it may hold off on the other $1.7 billion until next year. Eventually, the distribution of the bond money will even out because state law requires transportation funds to be allocated between Southern and Northern California on a 60-40 basis. Yet there's no need to wait. The $730 million needed for the 405 project can be added now.

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