An unlocking of transportation funds in Sacramento and Washington has moved the $1 billion plan to widen the Santa Ana (5) Freeway off the back burner.

Two developments could finally get the long-delayed project moving: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's decision to end the diversion of $1.3 billion in gasoline taxes to the state's general fund (the money is earmarked for transportation), and Senate approval of a $295 billion highway bill that's $11 billion more than what the House of Representatives has approved.

President Bush favors the House plan, but may be open to compromise.
Through both measures, L.A. County stands to gain anywhere from $300 million to $600 million in additional transportation dollars.

Additionally, a lawsuit over Indian gaming revenues was dropped last week, allowing $1 billion in bond sales for transportation.

But this will hardly be an overnight sensation: Construction would begin in late 2006 and last about five years.

And the project has its critics.

"There is a bottleneck there and I understand that," said Dana Gabbard, executive director of Southern California Transit Advocates, which pushes for public transportation programs. "But we shouldn't fool ourselves though. The new lanes will fill up just as soon as they open and it will be just as congested. "

The seven-mile Santa Ana Freeway project would add two lanes in each direction from the Orange County line to the San Gabriel River (605) Freeway, through the cities of La Mirada, Santa Fe Springs, Norwalk and Downey. It would also completely reconstruct two overpasses to make way for the widened freeway.

The stretch, a major commuter corridor that's gridlocked for several hours each day, is also one of the region's major commercial routes. Trucks make up about 18 percent of the 200,000 vehicles using it each day.

A plan to widen the freeway has been on the books for more than 12 years, but funding has been delayed, driving up costs for land acquisition and materials.

Across the county line, Orange County transit workers have widened the freeway to five lanes in each direction, complete with carpool lanes and "flyover" ramps that allow carpoolers to switch freeways without entering regular traffic.

"Traffic really hits the brakes when it gets to L.A. County and this bottleneck has really impacted our ability to move people and goods throughout the region," said David Yale, director of regional programming for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Back in the mid-1990s, the California Transportation Commission had earmarked $125 million in funds to widen the L.A. County portion of the freeway, with another $75 million for construction of a new overpass at Carmenita Road in Santa Fe Springs. But during the state's budget crisis, these funds were diverted to the general fund to fill the multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

The section being targeted for widening has only three lanes in each direction. Plans call for one carpool lane and one regular flow lane to be added in each direction.

"The I-5 is one of the oldest and most crowded freeways we have in L.A.," said Steve Finnegan, transportation policy manager for the Automobile Club of Southern California. "It's jammed cheek-by-jowl with cars and trucks and it's getting worse every year. Frankly, this should have gone to construction years ago."

Also benefiting from the likelihood of additional transportation dollars: a $640 million plan to build a light rail line from the USC to the Westside; the Eastside light rail project; carpool lanes on the San Diego (405) Freeway and reconstruction of the highly congested 405/101 freeway interchange.

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