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STATE YIELDS TO CALL FOR MORE ROAD FUNDING

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Times Staff Writers

State officials on Monday significantly increased the amount of bond money they plan to allocate this year for road projects, including carpool lanes for the heavily congested 405 Freeway though Westwood and the Sepulveda Pass.

The staff of the California Transportation Commission recommended that $4.5 billion in bond funds be earmarked for dozens of projects statewide instead of the $2.8 billion proposed Feb. 16.

The turnabout came after more than a week of protests and heavy lobbying from politicians and commuters, who argued that too many crucial projects were left off the state’s original list.

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The decision not to widen the northbound 405 between the 10 and 101 freeways became fodder for call-in radio shows, and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa last week even waded into Wilshire Boulevard traffic handing out fliers to drivers urging them to complain to Sacramento.

“There has been a constant stream of letters, e-mails and faxes. Everyone wants their projects fully funded,” said Marian Bergeson, a former Orange County state legislator who heads the transportation commission. “You can’t squeeze that much out of $4.5 billion.”

Despite the boost in funding, some projects in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys were cut from the list to make room for the new spending recommendations. The final decision lies with the nine-member commission, which will meet Wednesday in Irvine.

In November, voters approved a massive bond package that will eventually provide about $20 billion for transportation projects, and critics of the Feb. 16 proposal had argued that the state needed to move much faster to start fixing gridlocked freeways and roads.

“Boy, that’s a testament to strong and coordinated political reaction,” said professor Brian Taylor, director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies.

The protests were loudest in Los Angeles County, which has 28% of California’s population and the most congested highways in the state.

Initially, the state had recommended county projects get less than 12% of the available bond money.

The funding increase would benefit several other regions of Southern California where officials felt shortchanged.

In Riverside County, the state is now recommending spending $134 million out of a total of nearly $173 million to add carpool lanes along the 91 Freeway through Riverside, which like the 405 is one of Southern California’s most congested freeways.

San Diego County would receive $402 million, almost $100 million more than the commission staff suggested only 10 days earlier. The vast majority of the money would be used to add lanes on Interstate 15, north of downtown San Diego. Other projects on Interstates 5 and 805 would lose funding under the new plan.

Orange County did not receive any additional funding, though it had pushed hard to get more support to add lanes to the busy 91 Freeway.

The county was generally considered one of the biggest winners already with recommendations for nearly $362 million in bond financing.

Much of the state’s planned increase -- $730 million -- has been earmarked for a carpool lane on the northbound 405 though the Westside, part of a major plan to create a continuous carpool lane from Irvine to the northern end of the San Fernando Valley.

“Fantastic,” said attorney Richard Close, who also is president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn. “It will make the life of those of us -- myself included -- who use that freeway on a daily basis at least livable. Right now, it’s a parking lot most of the day.”

In addition, Los Angeles County would get $387 million to start construction of a carpool lane on the 5 from the Orange County line to near the 605, now considered a major traffic bottleneck. The initial recommendation was for $157 million.

To accommodate those projects, the commission staff dropped its earlier recommendation to spend $170 million to build other carpool lane projects on portions of the 5 in the San Fernando Valley and the 10 in the San Gabriel Valley.

Lawmakers in the San Gabriel Valley area, meanwhile, failed to persuade state officials to fund improvements to the aging, accident-plagued interchange of the 10 and 605 in Baldwin Park.

Los Angeles County officials said they were glad the state reconsidered some projects but still believe the county is not getting its fair share.

“We are still 1% below our population share and 4% below our congestion share, so we are still on the short end,” said Roger Snoble, the chief executive of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Snoble noted that Los Angeles County is slated to get a total of $1.1 billion, the same amount as the San Francisco Bay Area, which has 3 million fewer residents.

John Barna, executive director of the California Transportation Commission, said he is recommending that $2.7 billion of the $4.5 billion be devoted to projects in Southern California. The remaining $1.8 billion would be spent in Northern California.

Barna acknowledged the intense competition for highway projects across the state. Altogether, the commission last month received proposals for projects that would cost $11.3 billion.

Barna said one reason the 405 widening didn’t make the first cut was that the MTA’s paperwork for the project was incomplete -- something the MTA denies.

The commission’s staff made initial recommendations on Feb. 16 based on an evaluation of 149 projects submitted by transportation agencies across the state.

That set off a firestorm of complaints.

Even Gov. Schwarzenegger joined the fray. In a letter to the commission, he said he would like the $4.5 billion in bond funds distributed as soon as possible. He also recommended funding for a variety of projects for the 405, the 5, Interstate 215 and the 91. They are among the busiest highways in the state.

Commission officials had offered over the weekend to fund part of the cost for widening the 405, but Villaraigosa said he rejected that idea.

Instead, Villaraigosa said, he told Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and commission officials that he expects the full $730 million in bond money to be set aside to help pay for the $950-million project. Work is expected to begin in 2009.

“The outpouring of public support for relief on the 405 has broken the gridlock in Sacramento,” the mayor said. “We still have a mile to go in fully funding vital local projects, and I urge all commuters to keep the pedal to the floor.”

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dan.weikel@latimes.com

jeff.rabin@latimes.com

Times staff writers Jean Guccione and Duke Helfand contributed to this report.


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