Ron Kaye: The bumpy road of local transportation

A long and bumpy road lies ahead for California — make that thousands of rutted, cracked and broken roads and highways.

Nearly 60% of the state’s roadways are distressed and need reconstruction or major maintenance. More than a quarter of the bridges — 2,700 of them — need major repairs or replacement. More than a third of culverts and drainage systems have deteriorated from long-term policies of deferring maintenance.

Just in the last two years, the number of counties with “poor” roads has jumped from six to 17, while the number with “good” roads has fallen from seven to four.

Those are just a few of the troubling facts in a comprehensive 191-page report released last week by the California Transportation Commission, which rates the state’s roads and highways as “at risk,” scoring just 66 on a 100-point scale.

The report provides a detailed account of the sorry state of our transportation system. It also supplies projections of the staggering cost of restoring it and expanding public transit.

The bill over the next decade: $536.2 billion — that’s right, more than half a trillion dollars — with nearly $200 million for badly needed new projects.

The trouble is that even if local governments (which provide two-thirds of all transportation funding) can find as much money for repairs as they spent in the last decade, we still come up short by $94.7 million.

Is the stalemated Congress going to provide that money? Are you?

Probably not — though it should be noted that over the last 50 years, per capita spending on transportation projects in California has fallen by 60%, while the population has tripled and we’re traveling five times as many miles in-state.

Scoping the issue down to the local area, we ought to be in much better shape, having agreed just three years ago to a half-cent sales tax in Los Angeles County to provide $40 billion over 30 years for transportation projects.

But don’t get too excited if you’re a resident of Burbank, Glendale or the San Fernando Valley, because you are getting precious little of your money back in benefits that will help relieve the traffic indigestion you experience every day, or help you decide to leave your car at home and jump on a bus or train.

Some improvements to the I-5 corridor are planned — an HOV lane northbound from the Westside to the Valley is underway, an extension of the Orange Line bus way from the Westfield Topanga Mall to Chatsworth is being constructed, along with cheaper rapid transit buses running on north-south surface streets in the Valley.

That’s about it for major projects for the whole of northern L.A. County — home to nearly 2.5 million people, a quarter of the county’s population.

The big bucks are going to the Westside: subway to Beverly Hills and Westwood for $4 billion; Expo Line II to Santa Monica for $925 million; Crenshaw-LAX corridor for $1.2 billion; Green Line extension to LAX and the South Bay for $472 million; South Bay freeway improvements $905 million.

Downtown — where all transit projects lead — finally gets the $160 million connector that links the four light rail lines that, like everything else in the transit system, were built as if taking people where they wanted to go was not the goal.

The Eastside, for its part, gets $2 billion worth of extensions east from Pasadena to Azusa, now under construction, and on to Claremont as well as east from Pomona.

The inequities built into Metro’s transit plan are not lost on the newly-created San Fernando Valley Council of Governments, which brings together the entire region, from Glendale and Burbank to Santa Clarita and San Fernando, into a single political body for the first time

“Transportation was the No. 1 reason we came together,” says Robert Scott, executive director of the organization. “To a large extent, we’ve been Balkanized by the lack of connection to the rest of the region.”

In what Scott calls the “first actual official government” involving all the cities of the Valley region, the council is holding a “Mobility Summit” from 8:30 a.m. to noon Thursday at the Airtel Plaza Hotel in Van Nuys.

“Hopefully, in the future, the Valley region will be able to step up and get a fair return on its investment,” he said. “That hasn’t been the case. Politics has driven transportation planning instead of a market-based approach that is needed to get recovery of costs to be able to build the next project.”

Scott, a long-time Valley civic leader, believes the focus needs to be on shorter term, less expansive and faster projects than the massive projects in Metro’s plans.

“Lack of consistency is one of the worst problems. The connections aren’t there,” he said. “Public transit has to have the security and confidence to be useful for the majority of the people, to get the transit discretionary riders out of their cars.”

That’s generally in line with what a new poll sponsored by Move L.A., a nonprofit advocate for public transit, showed most people want: more investment in public transit, shuttles, bike paths, safer sidewalks and crosswalks, with less spent on widening roads and highways or building new ones.

Maybe with estimates for the cost of high-speed rail from Anaheim to San Francisco more than doubling to $98 billion just days after a state report was released, even the politicians will wake up and realize that what the public wants makes a lot more sense than the schemes they are pursuing for reasons of their own.

RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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