September 29, 2005 - From the September, 2005 issue

CalTrans District 7 Prioritizes Scarce Dollars on Infrastructure for Increased Mobility

Single freeway interchanges in District 7 of the California Department of Transportation see more traffic than the entire highway systems of some states. Consisting of L.A. and Ventura counties, District 7 maintains the goal of a more mobile region, and over $4 billion from the recent federal transportation bill will contribute to these efforts. MIR recently spoke with District 7 director Doug Failing about the agency's opportunities and the many "little things" that can relieve and even reverse the region's gridlock.

Doug Failing

An interview about tranportation should begin with a question about funding. Congress just approved a transportation bill with over $250 billion in spending. Does District 7 of Caltrans benefit from the passage of this massive appropriation bill?

First off, the most important thing how well California does in the bill overall. It raises the minimum guarantee from the federal government from 90.5 percent to 92 percent, so that's quite a bit of additional money that's coming back into the state, of which Southern California, Los Angeles, Ventura County, District 7, get their share. The urbanized areas have been getting more congested and more dense, and we need those additional funds to make up for what's been the lack of investment for a number of years in our urban cores.

What District 7 projects are funded and what projects remain on the list of unfunded that our readers ought to be aware of.

The interesting part of it, which happens most times when you get a federal authorization, is not so much that things were funded and un-funded, as much as a lot of things were partially funded. We're going to have to scramble here locally within the minimum allocation and other sources of funding to figure out the rest of it. The I-405 northbound HOV or car pool lane is one of the most talked-about examples right now. We're still finishing the environmental document on that, but the request has been for $400 million in federal funds for that project, and we received about $130 million. We have a certain amount of state funds sitting there, $90 million total, $15 million already allocated. That still leaves us quite a bit short of completing that northbound HOV lane, so we are working here locally, with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro) and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, to figure out how we can get the rest of the funding for that project.

For California, and me in particular, goods movement is a huge issue right now. We had a very sizable request in for Alameda Corridor East so that we could begin grade separating (separating rail lines from the roadway) further out from downtown L.A. towards San Bernardino. There we have about $900 million unfunded, and we had requested a significant amount, and we received back about $125 million. The way that project is broken up we can make use of it. We'll be able to pick certain interchanges that we'll be able to grade-separate, but we're a long way from completing what we need to do in that corridor.

The next one for me is dealing with all the freight coming up out of the ports of L.A. and Long Beach. In conjunction with Gateway Cities Council of Governments, Metro, and a few others, we recently completed a major investment study, looking at how we can create a goods movement route that comes out of the ports and at least gets us as far as the rail yards south of downtown. Now we have to expand that and look at taking it eastward out through San Bernardino County, Riverside, and up I-15. L.A.-Long Beach is so important to the nation, yet we got back very little in the way of funds for that specific corridor. Goods movement is absolutely vital to what's going to happen here in Southern California – jobs, growth, all those kinds of things. There are some really good jobs that could be generated out of a project in that corridor. It can really help, and we need to get behind it.

And does their funding address U.S. 101/I-405 Interchange congestion?

For the 101/405 interchange, we didn't ask for any additional funding in this go-around. The first series of projects – including auxiliary lanes, widening a connector, and a flyover that was actually funded because of a partnership we have with Metro – are all currently under construction. We have a completed study that we had looked at with Congressman Brad Sherman (D-S.F. Valley) regarding the southbound 405/northbound 101 connector, but we're not at a point where we really need to figure out what we're going to do and how we're going to request funding.

What I'd like to do is really focus on our congestion hotspots. I need to focus on some specific interchanges and look at what we can do to improve them. I-10/605 is a good example, as is the downtown ‘slot,' the four-level interchange. There are some places near the airport, auxiliary lanes, widened ramps, some things that should really help congestion hotspots move along better. All of those things can happen if we see the funding continue. Federal authorization was great; we need to continue, though, getting back the Prop 42 money.

Help explain what's happened with promised Prop 42 funding and what's likely to happen in coming years re: these supposedly dedicated state transportation funds.

Proposition 42 was passed by the voters about four years ago, in which the sales tax on gasoline, which had traditionally gone to the general fund, was going to be diverted back into transportation. There are provisions in Prop 42 that let the governor and the legislature suspend the provisions of the proposition in times of fiscal emergency; it is basically a loan that eventually has to be paid back. Ever since Prop 42 was passed, the state has been in a fiscal emergency, so we have never gotten that full amount of funding in transportation until this year. This is the first year that the governor, working with the legislature, has been able to put the full provision of Prop 42 funds back into transportation.

Here in District 7, we have two counties. We have L.A. County, which has Prop A money and Prop C money. They have been bonding to get those revenues to help keep those projects rolling here in L.A. County. Ventura County doesn't have the luxury of the sales tax, so they haven't been able to bond. A lot of those projects that we have been designing and getting ready on schedule here have been going on the shelf. So, Prop 42 money will fund some of those significant projects; widening the State Route 23 between Moorpark and Thousand Oaks is the key example that should be under construction now. In L.A. County projects have been delayed because we had to go through a bonding process, but we have been working with Metro, and they have been able to move those projects forward. Metro is at a point where they can't bond anymore, and if this continued, we would start to see projects going on the shelf in Los Angeles County as well. In the next couple of years, it is really hard to read. If we do not get that Prop 42 money fully devoted to transportation next year, we might actually have to look, for the first time that I can remember in the history of California, at taking program jobs, jobs that we say we have money for construction, and pulling them off the program and saying that we don't have the money to construct them.


Let's return to issue of congestion relief. You have been quoted as saying that congestion in L.A. will never get better, at best it will stay constant. Mayor Villaraigosa and the MTA's new board members have been eloquent in saying relief is needed. Given the challenges you have just described, will the public stand for it "never getting better"?

The public is not in the mood for it never getting better; I absolutely agree with that. Actually what I said in the earlier quote was, "...given the status of current transportation funding." We have been working statewide at a plan of what it will actually take to not just hold the status quo or slow down the rate of congestion increase, but actually reduce congestion by a noticeable margin. And we have been talking with the current administration under Governor Schwarzenegger, and over the next couple of months the administration may be unveiling a plan to address congestion in California.

What the press and others need to understand is that it is not just dealing with today's congestion. Today's congestion has enough problems, but we are expecting some 6 million more people moving into the Southern California area over the next 20 years. They are going to want jobs. They are going to want housing. They are going to need transportation to get back and forth, and we have to address that. You have to deal with getting jobs near housing, so people can live near where they work. If you provide choices, some people will choose to live near where they work. There is no single answer to that many people coming into California. It is going to require a mixture of different answers, working together in some type of synergy that is going to help us reduce congestion.

Often NIMBYism is offered as an explanation for the inadequacy of our transportation infrastructure in Southern California. Is local opposition to widening the 101 and other roads and corridors the chief obstacle to greater investment in the aforementioned? What explains why so little new capacity has been built in Metro LA in the last two decades?

There is going to have to be. My career spans 25 years, almost all of it here in Los Angeles, and, when you look at new facilities, we have built very little. "NIMBYism" is one form of the term, but it plays an important role. My interpretation of the dynamics of L.A. politics is that the people that are very opposed to anything come out very strong, and they form a solid coalition and they go get the ear of the people involved in the decision-making process. The people that want things to happen are going to have to get just as organized. They can't just sit back like they used to 30 or 40 years ago and then say, "The elected officials with take care of it because they know what is better for the greater good anyways, and I don't have to say anything." If they want improvements, they are going to have to get out there and be organized in discussing their needs with elected officials and make sure that they are solidly behind them, just as vociferously, if you will, as those who are opposed. They can't afford to sit back, because if they do, the pattern that has developed will continue.

Katrina and Rita have certainly demonstrated the economic significance of our country's major ports. Our L.A. and Long Beach ports have no match in the United States. As a consequence, growth in goods movement from and to these ports has begun to overwhelm our freeways and the infrastructure of adjacent cities. Can we expect satisfactory solutions to gridlock if we rely simply on the ports and their cities to solve the congestion? Doesn't Southern California need a regional solution?

First off, I would say that it is a regional planning issue. It is not just a port issue. It is a regional issue that could be very good for us in Southern California. This region's economy has changed. We still have manufacturing, but it is down, and it is not a growth industry anymore, but trade can be. And there are two types of trade. There is pass-through trade, which comes in in a box and goes straight through the port and onto rail and it just passes through the region. There are some minimal jobs associated with this trade, but it doesn't really spend time here and contribute to our economy. But here in Southern California on a regional basis and in the United States over all, we have a distinct economic advantage because the stuff that is coming in is in 20- and 40-foot boxes, but our highway system will accommodate much bigger boxes, so there is the opportunity for a lot of added value with all of that. There are jobs in transloading where we are taking goods out of the 40-foot containers and repackaging it so that it goes to better warehousing, and they put on the types of labels they need on it, and they are putting it in bigger boxes, 54-foot containers that can go on our roadway and rail system. That creates a lot of jobs that could help replace those manufacturing jobs that we are losing, the jobs that we need for the people that are going to be coming in here in the future, and they are good paying jobs. But that asset needs to be developed on a regional basis. The ports themselves cannot do that. It will take the whole region to do that because we need to have places for the transloading, and we have to be able to economically get the goods from the ports to the transloading centers, where we can create the jobs that we need.

David Fleming of the Metro board said in a MIR interview last month that regional mobility depends on doing "a lot of little things." What might these "little things" be, and can they possibly have a large impact on the region's mobility?

First, I have to say that I have a lot of respect for David Fleming. I have known him for a long time, and he is a very good thinker and he understands transportation issues. I agree, it is going to be a lot of little things that are going to have to come together, and they can have a very significant impact. Some of them I alluded to a little bit earlier. Dealing with where to put the jobs at in relation to housing. The region did what was called the Compass study. It is 3 or 4 or 5 percent of the solution, but every percentage point is significant here in Los Angeles. I think it's not just the big system and adding capacity, but it will be an interchange here, a ramp there. The expanded freeway service patrol is an example. Freeway service patrol is one of the most cost-effective congestion relief measures that we have in Southern California. Caltrans, the CHP, and Metro are funding that peak-period tow service, where tow trucks come around and take drivers that have broken down on the road, and get them off the system. We are also looking at expanding that to the point where some roads have the larger tow trucks that can get the large trucks that break down off the road quicker. That seems small, but is a very significant issue. Metro is looking at how they can make their transit system more effective and more efficient. Lastly, we are going to have to add capacity as well.

Lastly, CH2M Hill's Jack Baylis, in a MIR interview this summer, noted that opportunities exist because of LA City's Prop O (Storm Water Runoff) , to powerfully leverage, school bonds, local resources and Prop O to create model storm water demonstrations projects in L.A. Could you elaborate on the possibilities?

I certainly look forward to such leverage happening because it was referred to in the trash removal project that we are working on right now. It is a great opportunity to start to work more comprehensively with other government entities, school districts, cities, counties and anyone else who jumps into the fray. I have been very pleased with what we have done here in Southern California, particularly here in Los Angeles, on storm water. We have basically been leading in the State of California on new programs, new techniques, things that ask what we can do to clean up storm water in the most efficient and effective way possible. And we have learned quite a bit over the past few years, and we actually have a very active program looking at what's going into our freeway system and looking at retrofitting a large amount of our drainage system and trying to find ways to improve that storm water runoff that goes into the rivers and through the communities. The one thing that is most exciting to me is some of the things that are happening at the Southern California Associated Governments (SCAG) level and the regional level, where they are beginning to bring in other entities like ourselves, the City of Los Angeles and the County of Los Angeles, and looking at doing joint projects like we are discussing with some of the school construction. I can do a lot myself, but I can do a lot more a lot more efficiently when I am working with the rest of the governments and there is a lot of potential for joint-use projects where we could save us all a bunch of tax dollars, still handle our water very efficiently and make it work for the region.


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