Letting gridlock loose on L.A.

Published on June 9th, 2008

When approving developments, local officials have sidestepped laws meant to limit the effects on traffic.
By Jeffrey L. Rabin and Dan Weikel
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

June 9, 2008

When Santa Monica officials approved the massive Water Garden office complex, they predicted the project would generate thousands of good jobs and revive a once-tired industrial neighborhood.

They also predicted a lot of traffic.

Twenty years later, both predictions have come true. Just ask Aundraya Reliford.

Five days a week, Reliford, 32, rises at 5:45 a.m., drives 20 minutes to a train station seven miles from her home in Rialto, in San Bernardino County, and catches the 7:20 a.m. Metrolink to Los Angeles.

During the hour-and-20-minute ride, she reads, sleeps or stares out the window, watching miles of motorists stuck on the freeway. Then, she becomes one of them.

At Union Station, Reliford heads for a parking lot where she has left a second car. She ventures onto the freeways for the final 15-mile, hourlong journey to Santa Monica, where she manages library services for MTV Networks.

Elapsed time: two hours, 40 minutes — on a good day.

In the afternoon, she does it all again, in reverse.

Her daily journey is "absolutely horrific," she says. "It’s not the distance. It’s the amount of congestion that makes it just about unbearable." Just getting to the 10 Freeway onramp from her office, in the entertainment-industry hub surrounding Water Garden, can take 20 minutes.

Many factors conspire to produce Southern California’s traffic. The most consequential is the collective impact of millions of individual choices. In Reliford’s case, her loathing of the commute is outweighed by her love for her home in Rialto, with its big backyard where her two young boys can play safely.

Those choices play out in a region that sprawled long before the freeways were built. The pattern of development in Southern California as far back as the era of the Pacific Electric Railway’s Red Cars created a horizontal city, one in which people frequently settled far from where they worked.

But individual decision-making alone does not account for Southern California’s massive traffic congestion. Actions by government at the state and local level also bear a big share of the blame.

Two decisions stand out:

* State and local officials have not expanded the region’s highways and mass transit systems enough to keep up with population growth.

The population of the five-county Southern California region grew 22% from 1990 to 2006, and the total miles driven by motorists has increased about 42%. But the number of miles of highway in the region has increased by only 7.5%.

Since 2001, Govs. Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, along with state legislators, repeatedly have diverted money from the state’s taxes on gasoline to pay for non-transportation programs. Schwarzenegger plans to do so again in the budget for the coming year. Roughly $5.8 billion in highway and mass-transit funds that were diverted during the state’s repeated budget crises this decade have not yet been repaid.

While the region’s highway capacity has lagged behind population growth, mass transit has not made up the difference. Los Angeles County for the last 25 years has put three-quarters of its voter-approved transportation money into rail and bus systems. Even with the investment of about $7 billion, 85% of commuters still drive.

* At the same time, local officials repeatedly have sidestepped state laws that were supposed to require developers to lessen the traffic-snarling effects of projects.

For years, elected county and city officials across Southern California have put economic development and jobs ahead of mobility, approving major commercial and residential developments without requiring builders to pay enough for improvements needed to handle extra traffic.

All that development contributes to congestion that for the average motorist in L.A. and Orange counties adds up to almost two workweeks of delay each year, according to the Texas Transportation Institute, a think tank at Texas A&M University that compiles annual assessments of congestion nationwide. That’s almost double what it was in the 1980s. In Ventura County , congestion-related delays each year consume roughly a workweek of the average motorist’s life. The delay in the Inland Empire equals about six workdays.

Traffic has eased slightly on some freeways recently, probably because of the poor economy and high gas prices, but it is only a matter of time before congestion returns in full force.

Water Garden, approved in 1988, provides a case study of how developments pass through loopholes in state laws. The project is a collection of well-landscaped office towers surrounding a man-made pond just north of the 10 Freeway, near Santa Monica’s border with Los Angeles.

When Santa Monica officials were debating it, their environmental impact report warned that the development would worsen traffic along city streets and the freeway.

In response, the Santa Monica City Council required the developer to pay for improvements to streets and traffic signals. City officials knew that would not make up for the additional congestion. But they approved the project anyway, adopting a formal finding that the economic benefits outweighed traffic impacts.

Those economic benefits have been formidable. Water Garden has become a hub of one of the region’s largest concentrations of entertainment-industry jobs, including Reliford’s, which is in a building nearby.

The traffic impact has been formidable as well. For the last 10 years, traffic on the 10 Freeway near the interchange with the 405 has been heaviest heading west in the morning — a reversal of the historic pattern — as tens of thousands of commuters head to jobs in West Los Angeles and Santa Monica.

The California Environmental Quality Act, adopted in the 1970s, requires cities and counties to prepare an environmental impact report before approving a large development. Those voluminous documents are supposed to inform the public and guide land-use decisions. The law directs officials to find ways to limit the increases in traffic congestion, air pollution and other problems to an insignificant level.

But the law does not define "significant," leaving that up to local governments.

In Los Angeles County, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which makes that decision, has decreed that a project must increase traffic on a Los Angeles freeway by 2% before its impact is considered significant. That decision by a previous MTA board — made up of the five county supervisors, the mayor of Los Angeles, three mayoral appointees and other local representatives — means each new development can add hundreds of vehicle trips to an already jammed freeway.

The law provides another escape hatch. By adopting a "statement of overriding considerations," officials can give the green light to a project even if it will have significant environmental effects as long as they decide the economic benefits are worth it. Santa Monica used that legal provision when it approved the Water Garden.

More than a decade later, L.A. officials used the same legal provision to approve the 54-story hotel and condominium tower and adjoining shopping and entertainment complex now rising near the intersection of the 110 and 10 freeways.

L.A. Live and its 5,000-car parking garage will generate an estimated 48,000 vehicle trips a day in the South Park area, next to Staples Center, the Nokia Theatre and the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Seven years ago, Caltrans officials asked Los Angeles planners to require measures to reduce L.A. Live’s effect on nearby freeways.

"Interstate 10 and 110 freeways and the ramps in this area are operating at or near capacity for the most part of the day," Stephen J. Buswell, an official at Caltrans’ district headquarters in downtown L.A., wrote to city planners Feb. 23, 2001. The additional traffic would create an "unacceptable level of service," he warned.

In September 2001, the L.A. City Council voted 11 to 0 to approve the $2.5-billion project, using a statement of overriding considerations. The city required the developer, Philip Anschutz, to pay for improvements to streets in the area and share the cost of widening a 110 Freeway offramp and onramp. He also is required to cover the cost of an electronic sign on the freeway to advise motorists of traffic conditions near L.A. Live and Staples Center.

Even with the improvements, L.A. Live will worsen already crowded conditions, Caltrans said.

Caltrans can go to court to challenge a local government’s approval of a project. And in some parts of the state, the agency has done so, seeking to force local governments to be more aggressive with developers. In 2006, for example, Caltrans won a settlement in which the city of Fresno agreed to require a developer to pay a fee to offset the effect his project would have on highways.

But Caltrans has been far more accommodating in Southern California. The agency has sued only once over a development, and then only to challenge an Orange County developer’s traffic study. Indeed, when Caltrans built its headquarters across from City Hall in downtown Los Angeles, it asked for a statement of overriding considerations to allow the project to go forward. L.A. officials gave the green light.

Local officials across the region — in Orange, Ventura, Riverside and San Bernardino counties — have all taken advantage of the same legal process to approve traffic-worsening developments.

Such land-use decisions have compounded the problems created by the state’s chronic shortage of money.

"There have been decades of under-investment in the state’s highways," said Caltrans Director Will Kempton. "Not only are we not keeping pace with the need to expand the system, we are not taking care of the existing system."

State transportation spending began falling behind population growth in the early 1970s. But the gap began to widen even more after the collapse of the dot-com boom.

Davis and Schwarzenegger both used money from state transportation funds to help balance their budgets and avoid tax increases. They siphoned roughly $8 billion from highway and mass-transit programs, bringing such projects to a near standstill. The money went to schools, medical care for the poor and elderly, prisons and other state programs.

Delay has proved costly. In recent years, construction costs have risen faster than inflation. Today, adding one carpool lane on the northbound 405 from the 10 Freeway to the 101 would cost about $1 billion. That’s $100 million a mile.

The price of rebuilding 18 miles of the 710 Freeway and adding truck lanes would be at least $6 billion. And a 12-mile tunnel through the Santa Ana Mountains to better link Riverside and Orange counties could cost $8 billion or more.

Inflation and steady improvements in the fuel efficiency of new cars have made the state and federal gasoline tax less valuable as a source of revenue. Adjusted for inflation, state officials estimate that gas-tax money available for spending on highways was lower in 2006 than in 1994.

Looking for ways to boost spending without raising taxes, Schwarzenegger two years ago proposed the biggest transportation bond package in state history, a $20-billion measure, aimed mostly at roads.

The bond measure is intended to jump-start spending on highway projects, but it does not generate any new revenue to help pay for them. Instead, using bond funds simply means borrowing now and repaying later with interest. By the time the bonds are repaid, interest will have almost doubled the cost to an estimated $38.9 billion. That will put further demands on the state’s general fund. In its most recent annual report to the Legislature, the California Transportation Commission, which oversees spending the bond money, described "the dismal shape of basic state transportation funding."

"We can barely afford half of the state’s major rehabilitation needs," commissioners said.

For Reliford and tens of thousands of commuters like her, that means there is little likelihood that the daily commute will shorten soon.

"There is no improvement in sight," Reliford said. "You know there isn’t going to be anything any time soon. . . . At the rate things are going, there’s certainly going to be a time when I have to pull out."

[email protected]

[email protected]

You are donating to :

How much would you like to donate?
$10 $20 $30
Would you like to make regular donations? I would like to make donation(s)
How many times would you like this to recur? (including this payment) *
Name *
Last Name *
Email *
Additional Note