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Southern California Traffic Pushing Many to the Braking Point

May 8, 1989

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Life in the fast lane is screeching to a halt as too many cars jam too little concrete in America’s motor mecca. Angelenos still love their cars, but using them is pushing many to the braking point.

Traffic planning took a wrong turn somewhere along the road. Drivers spend more time reading bumper stickers than getting where they want to go. Even a flat tire or passing shower can turn a commute into an hours-long ordeal.

And the one-time showcase of top-down freeway living now faces the nation’s worst traffic conditions and related ozone pollution.

″It is as bad as it seems,″ said Dave Roper of the California Transportation Department. ″Congestion is growing at 15 percent a year.″

With Southern California’s population expanding 3 percent a year and vehicle mileage jumping 4 percent, gridlock is changing the way people live.

″The freeways have been operating reasonably well in a lot of areas, but close to full,″ Roper said. ″Now, additional travel is taking it over ‘full’ and the break point has occurred.″

Although segments of Metro Rail and two regional light rail transit projects are under construction, the city’s status as the largest metropolitan region in the country without a mass transit system is assured for years.

The three systems will have 46 miles of track by 1993. The most optimistic estimates put daily ridership at 213,000 passengers by the year 2000. In Los Angeles County today, there are 25 million daily trips, 97 percent in cars and the rest in buses. That’s in a county with 8.6 million residents, 6.5 million registered vehicles and 504 miles of freeway.

″I don’t know what’s going to help L.A. congestion at this point, but it can’t hurt,″ said Cindy Marion, an executive in a law firm who faces a 40- mile one-way commute and a $130-a-month parking bill. ″If it came to my neighborhood, I’d take it,″ she said of the planned subway.

Some argue that the billions going to the high-tech subway would be better spent on buses, carpools and other traffic improvements.

But even with rail transit in place, transportation planners face limited options and dwindling funds as they try to negotiate ideas through the region’s hodgepodge of federal, state, regional and municipal agencies.

″There isn’t enough money, there isn’t enough land and the environmental constraints and financial constraints are such that it’s no longer possible to exclusively build our way out of the problem,″ said Bob Remen, chief deputy director for the California Transportation Commission.

The commission has selected $7 billion in transportation improvement projects statewide for the next five years, but Remen said the primary funding source, the state gasoline tax, is being eroded by inflation.

Gov. George Deukmejian, an anti-tax crusader, tried to solve the problem in June with a $1 billion bond measure for highway improvements; voters rejected the idea. Deukmejian’s fallback plan was a series of ″transportation summits″ with business, labor, government, transit advocates and others.

On April 4, he called for a special election in November to let voters decide on a detailed 10-year, $20 billion transportation improvement plan that includes a 9-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax hike.

The governor, however, refused to firmly pledge his support for the plan, and political analysts show little enthusiasm for a costly special election, when voter turnout is usually low but anti-tax sentiment usually high.

Funding problems aside, transportation planners agree that costly capital projects, such as double-decking freeways, are financially prohibitive and politically impractical, if not impossible.

As a result, transportation officials are concentrating on wringing more efficiency out of an overloaded system.

″What we’ve had to do in the city is focus our efforts on traffic management options and also on demand,″ said S. Edwin Rowe, general manager of the Los Angeles City Department of Transportation.

Remen said state officials are considering not just projects to expand capacity, but techniques to improve freeway efficiency and land-use management to encourage commuters to live closer to their jobs. ″It’s going to require everything,″ he said. ″It’s going to require all means available.″

Hanging over the entire process is a threatened crackdown of the federal Clean Air Act, which orders the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and regional state agencies to meet federal air quality standards.

Drastic measures already have been enacted by the regional South Coast Air Quality Management District, which has power to enforce air quality standards, and more stringent steps are being taken. ″Under state legislation, we’re authorized to mandate companies to offer ride-sharing programs, and we’ve done that,″ said Tom Eichhorn, a district spokesman. ″We can regulate truck traffic during peak hours and we can require owners of fleet vehicles ... to start buying vehicles that burn clean fuels.″

Another regional agency, the Southern California Association of Governments, has been working to improve air quality by studying land use regulations and by developing a regional mobility plan.

But the task is daunting, as reflected by the executive summary of a draft of the Air Quality Management Plan released by SCAG in September. The 20-year plan is estimated to cost $42 billion; a heart-stopping aspect is that its goal is to restore the degree of mobility motorists had in 1984.

Meanwhile, drivers are coping with worsening traffic in a variety of ways. On any given morning, motorists can be seen using cellular phones, applying makeup, shaving, eating breakfast, talking back to language tapes and flirting.

In fact, there are several dating services specializing in roadway romance, including Drive Me Wild of Simi Valley, which uses bumper stickers to facilitate matchmaking.

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