Southland rebuffed in bid for more road, rail and port funds

Times Staff Writers

The state Transportation Commission on Tuesday rejected demands of 36 legislators from Southern California to increase their area’s share of transportation funds targeted at improving the flow of goods through ports and along rail lines and highways.

The commission instead voted 8 to 1 to adopt a plan that more evenly spreads the $3 billion throughout the state. Commissioners spurned arguments from Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) that his region should get a bigger share because 85% of the shipping cargo containers handled in California come through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

“The proposal before you shortchanges the neediest areas of the state when it comes to goods movement,” Nunez said in a rare appearance before the state panel. “It’s unconscionable. It’s unacceptable.”


The panel adopted guidelines that could provide up to $1.7 billion, or nearly 60% of the expected funds, to Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.

Nunez and the other Southern California lawmakers had sought at least 70% to 75% of the money, or up to $2.2 billion.

Commissioner Bob Alvarado, a union official from the Bay Area, said the guidelines reflected the commission’s view that the challenge of efficiently moving goods required improvements throughout California.

“We’ve got more than just a [local] constituency,” he said after Nunez’s comments. “We’ve got the whole state to look at.”

The San Francisco/Central Valley corridor would receive up to $840 million, the second-largest amount, with smaller portions going to San Diego and other areas.

Immediately after the vote, Nunez threatened to alter the funding legislatively.

Nunez said the money still has to be allocated through the budget by the Legislature, so the issue is not settled.

“I will work vigorously with my colleagues from these counties to make sure the Los Angeles-Inland Empire trade corridor gets the honest treatment it deserves and that the voters in our communities get the improvements they expected when they passed the bonds,” the speaker said.

Most of the money comes from a $20-billion transportation bond measure, Proposition 1B, passed by California voters last year.

The dispute over the funding is not only a north-south political battle but also is shaping up into a struggle between the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who appoints the Transportation Commission’s voting members.

At issue is $2 billion earmarked for road and rail improvements in corridors with high volumes of freight movement, plus some additional funds. With projects totaling more than $3 billion proposed, the commission decided to add $500 million from the state highway account, plus a similar amount from future federal funding and any money that ports may gain from new fees.

Commissioner Larry Zarian, a former Glendale mayor, cast the only “no” vote on the funding guidelines. He said half of the $1 billion added was going to highway projects anyway, and the other half, because it was based on future federal funding, should not be counted now.

Efforts in recent days by state Business, Transportation and Housing Agency Secretary Dale Bonner to broker a consensus among several regions failed. The proposal offered by Bonner, an appointee of the governor, fizzled when the Southern California lawmakers floated a plan that would have provided the five Southern California counties with 75% of the Proposition 1B money, or $1.5 billion, and 70% of the added $1 billion.

Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) and four other lawmakers presented a letter to the panel signed by 35 legislators (excluding Nunez), Republicans and Democrats, asking for more funding for the five counties.

“A fair, need-based, fact-based analysis would result in directing well more than 75%,” Feuer told the commission.

Commissioner Kirk Lindsey, a trucking company owner from Modesto, said what the lawmakers were doing was talking about a split between the north and the south parts of the state rather than collaboration. He said they were distorting the picture by focusing on cargo containers from ports, which he said make up a minority of all goods trucked throughout the state.

Chairman James Ghielmetti, a Bay Area real estate developer, said if politicians want more money for the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, they should pass legislation to set container fees so the users pay for improvements.

Environmentalists won a significant victory when the commission agreed that a reduction in local and regional air pollution will be one of the criteria used to decide which transportation projects receive state funding. Elected officials, environmentalists and community activists from Los Angeles, Long Beach, the San Gabriel Valley and the Inland Empire joined their Bay Area counterparts in demanding that the commission add air quality to its guidelines for selecting projects.

Kathryn Phillips of the Environmental Defense Fund said she did not think the commission would have any difficulty finding projects that improve mobility and air quality at the same time.