By HOWARD FINE
This is not the time to try fixing roads and bridges.
Massive state and federal budget deficits threaten to delay transportation projects throughout L.A. County, from freeway widenings, carpool lanes and bridge repair to rail projects in the San Gabriel Valley and on L.A.'s Westside.
At risk are billions of dollars in projects that could generate thousands of design and construction jobs for years to come. This comes despite pledges from Gov. Gray Davis, L.A. Mayor James Hahn and other political leaders to speed up construction to create jobs and kick-start the region's stalled economy.
"We're in real trouble if we don't get the funds we need," said L.A. City Councilman Hal Bernson, who also chairs both the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Southern California Association of Government. "We're near gridlock right now, and with an additional 2 million to 3 million people coming to our region by 2010, we'll be at total gridlock and economic shutdown if these projects don't get funded."
Projects already under construction, such as the Metro Gold Line to Pasadena, or where contracts have been awarded, such as the Santa Monica Boulevard realignment on L.A.'s Westside, are likely to escape most of the budget axes.
"If you've already committed to construction on a project, there's no percentage savings in canceling that," said John Edmiston, division chief in charge of capital projects for the County Administrative Office.
Also, projects with separate funding sources, chiefly bonds, likely will be spared from cutbacks. This is why most of the region's non-transportation public works projects like school facilities or sewer lines are not at great risk. Most of these projects are funded with bonds.
But transportation projects are another matter. While some are bond financed, most are funded either with gas tax dollars or direct general fund dollars and are thus most at risk for cuts as the state and federal governments grapple with their huge budget deficits.
What's more, many of the major transportation projects planned for the L.A. County area are only partially funded. These are more vulnerable to being cut than those with full funding.
Last week, a coalition of regional transportation chiefs flew to Washington to lobby for $11 billion in federal funding for 29 projects in Southern California. Congress is drawing up a three-year transportation funding bill, although with a projected $300 billion federal deficit and increasingly cash-strapped state governments, competition for the scarce transportation funds is expected to be extremely fierce.
Among the projects L.A. county officials are lobbying for:
- Carpool lanes on Interstate 5 in both the San Fernando Valley and the mid-cities section southeast of downtown L.A.
- A carpool lane along the San Diego (405) Freeway through the Sepulveda Pass.
- Replacing the Gerald Desmond Bridge that links the ports to the southern end of the Long Beach Freeway.
- Light rail lines on L.A.'s Eastside and along Exposition Boulevard on the Westside.
Should these projects lose out in the funding derby, the impact will go beyond the construction jobs lost and the inability to relieve congestion, according to Mark Pisano, executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments, which put together the lobbying trip.
"We're talking about the ability of this region to move the nation's goods that come through our ports and airports," Pisano said. "If these projects don't get completed, it will become increasingly difficult to move these goods across the nation."
The more serious threat to local transportation projects, though, comes from Sacramento, where officials are struggling to close a budget gap of up to $35 billion. In his proposed 2003-04 budget, Davis has eliminated a special congestion relief fund of $2 billion for 141 "high-priority" projects that he set up when times were flush three years ago.
If the Davis budget passes, these 141 congestion relief projects would have to compete with the hundreds of other transportation projects seeking state funds. In many cases, congestion relief projects are deemed so important that they will push aside others for the limited funds.
That's what's happening with some of the 30 congestion relief projects in L.A. County.
The board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has designated three projects the East-West Busway through the San Fernando Valley, the Eastside Rail project through Boyle Heights and additional bus procurement as top priority, just behind projects that are already under construction.
Two of these, the busway and the Eastside rail project, are in line for federal funding. "Stopping those would mean we would also lose the federal funds," said David Yale, the MTA's director of regional programming.
The bus procurement is a top priority so that the MTA can be in compliance with the federal consent decree with regard to bus overcrowding, Yale said.
The other 27 L.A. County projects in the congestion relief program are more at risk. The fate of many of them could be decided at an April 3 meeting of the California Transportation Commission.
"Trouble is, we don't know exactly how many projects will be impacted because we don't have a final figure from Sacramento yet on how much funding we're going to have," Yale said. "That will come later in the budget process."
Among the congestion relief projects that could lose funding:
- The Alameda Corridor East rail lines through the San Gabriel Valley, which would move freight coming to downtown L.A. along the Alameda Corridor out to the huge rail and trucking yards in the Inland Empire.
- Improvements to the Metrolink rail system in Sun Valley and the San Gabriel Valley.
- The Exposition Boulevard light rail line.
- Portions of the 101/405 freeway interchange in Sherman Oaks.
- Completion of a 2-mile gap in the Chino Valley (71) Freeway through the city of Pomona.
- Addition of carpool lanes on the San Bernardino (10) Freeway through West Covina and San Dimas.
- Studies on how to expand the 101 and 710 Freeways.
Even if most of these projects do survive this round of budget cuts, other projects lower down on the priority list will not.
Among these: the widening of the San Diego (405) Freeway through West Los Angeles and the Sepulveda Pass and the second phase of the Alameda Corridor East project, which includes an additional 20 grade separations between rail lines and surface streets in the San Gabriel Valley.
Meanwhile, L.A. city officials are concerned that state legislation passed last year could take $20 million away from the city's bridge retrofit program.
"If we can't amend that state legislation, these bridge projects will either get delayed or we'll have to find an alternate source of funding," said City Administrative Officer Bill Fujioka.
Of more serious concern to city and county officials is the potential loss of state replacement dollars for vehicle license fee revenues $300 million for the City of L.A. over the next 18 months and more than $1 billion for the county. In his proposed budget, Davis stops the state replacement of VLF revenues referred to as "VLF backfill" put in place when VLF fees were lowered in the late 1990s.
Democratic state legislators, however, want to raise VLF fees so that there won't be any more need for a state backfill. For the last month, these legislative leaders have been in a standoff with Davis on this issue.
"If this VLF backfill gets taken away, that's 40 percent of our net discretionary general fund," said the county's John Edmiston. "That's a big hit and it will force us to cut funding for capital projects."
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