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L.A. lobbies for 405 project

Times Staff Writer

After an intense day of lobbying in the state capital Tuesday, Los Angeles’ top leaders appeared to be winning their fight to secure $730 million in bond money to widen one of the nation’s most congested freeways, with one powerful legislator threatening to hold up funds for transportation projects statewide if the city and other congested areas don’t get what they need.

More than a dozen Los Angeles-area elected officials -- including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, County Supervisor Gloria Molina and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) -- descended on the Capitol to voice their unhappiness with a recommendation by the California Transportation Commission staff to omit new carpool lanes for the 405 Freeway and other local projects from an initial funding list.

Villaraigosa and several Los Angeles City Council members started the day by meeting privately with lawmakers and Transportation Commission officials, arguing that Los Angeles County has 28% of the state’s population and 33% of its traffic congestion but stands to receive only 12% of an initial $2.8 billion in bond money.

Then the mayor headlined a parade of elected leaders urging commissioners to rethink their spending priorities as they weigh the first installment of an overall $19.9-billion transportation bond that was approved by voters last November.

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Villaraigosa and nine other officials -- including state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) and Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) -- addressed the commission.

“We always talked about the 405 as a high-priority project,” Villaraigosa told the commission. “We were very concerned and very chagrined that the staff did not recommend this project.”

By the end of the day, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had piled on, adding their voices to the chorus calling for the commission to re-examine its allocations.

“I strongly urge the commission to reconsider the projects on the

At the top of Schwarzenegger’s list was the 405 Freeway.

Plans call for adding more than 10 miles of carpool lanes to the northbound side of the highway between the 10 and 101 freeways -- one of the most congested routes in the country and one that officials highlighted as they drummed up support for the transportation bond last year.

Schwarzenegger also called for the commission to reconsider another project important to Los Angeles County, widening Interstate 5 from the 605 Freeway to the Orange County line, as well as for several other congested traffic spots in the state.

The Transportation Commission, whose nine members are appointed by the governor, will decide Feb. 28 on the first round of highway projects.

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Commissioners said they face tough decisions because, although they received $11 billion worth of highway improvement proposals, only $4.5 billion of the $19.9-billion bond is earmarked for such projects. Some said they were inclined to review the 405 issue in light of new information brought to their attention.

Los Angeles officials told the commission that its staff got the start date for the 405 project wrong.

The widening is set to begin in spring 2009 and not 2011, which would have been after the eligibility deadline.

Rep. Sherman also told the commission that the 405 project stands to lose $130 million in federal contributions if it does not start in 2009.

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The intense lobbying appeared to have an effect.

After emerging from a morning meeting with Villaraigosa and other Los Angeles officials, commission Vice Chairman James Ghielmetti said he wanted to revisit the recommendation on the 405 and other Los Angeles County projects.

“It leaves me with a lot of questions of our staff,” Ghielmetti said. “Do I think the 405 is needed? Yes. Do I think it should go forward soon? Yes.”

Yet even as some transportation officials appeared to soften their position on the 405, Nunez kept up the pressure.

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During a Capitol news conference, he said the Assembly “would not appropriate funds that do not adequately address California’s traffic congestion problem.”

Nunez also announced that he would seek a $5-billion bond measure on the November 2008 ballot if the current allotment did not relieve highway congestion throughout the state.

The commission “needs to strategically, proactively and equitably address transportation around California, and not just take staff recommendations and wait for relief to materialize,” said Nunez, who also aired his grievances privately with the commission’s executive director Tuesday.

But Nunez, Villaraigosa and the others went out of their way to frame the transportation issue as a statewide concern, saying they are not only looking out for Los Angeles but for all areas in need of relief. Tuesday’s lobbying, however, did little to score points with cities and counties that are competing with the Los Angeles area for bond dollars.

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Some lawmakers from other areas -- even places such as Orange County that were prominent on the initial project list -- took note of the veritable lobbying assault in the capital.

“It’s completely unfair to come in and say worthy projects ... should somehow now be taken off the table because they’re competing with a Los Angeles project,” said Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange). “The worst thing you could do is to quibble and squabble over dollars when rebar is ready to be laid down and concrete is ready to be poured.”

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duke.helfand@latimes.com

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