Calif. Commission Allocates $4.5B in Highway Bonds

Mon March 19, 2007 - West Edition

SACRAMENTO (AP) State transportation officials on Feb. 28 divvied up more than $4 billion in bond money voters approved in November for highway construction, approving car pool lanes, a tunnel and other projects.

Many lawmakers and transportation experts, however, say the allocation made only a dent in California’s overall highway needs.

After an intense two-week lobbying campaign led by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the largest chunk of the $4.5 billion earmarked for reducing highway congestion will go to build an 11-mi.-long (17.7 km), $730 million car pool lane on Interstate 405. Southern Californians also will get more than $1 billion for car pool lanes on Interstate 5 and other freeways.

For Northern California, lawmakers succeeded in getting more funding to relieve congestion in the San Francisco Bay area — approximately $1.3 billion. The money will go mostly for car pool lanes on interstates 880 and 580 and Highway 101, as well as new lanes in the Caldecott Tunnel connecting east bay suburbs to San Francisco.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic leaders carefully praised the list approved by the California Transportation Commission at a meeting in Irvine. They said it represented a balanced, statewide approach in line with what voters expected when they approved the $19.9-billion Proposition 1B in November.

But for all the popular projects approved, many transportation advocates on Feb. 28 couldn’t help but see the glass as half empty. They noted that twice as many highway projects — more than 100 that regional agencies nominated — went unfunded because there wasn’t enough money in the bond.

“The $4.5 billion was just enough to look impressive but not enough to fix any of the major problems,” said Rod Diridon, executive director of the San Jose-based Mineta Transportation Institute, a federally funded transportation policy group.

“These projects are just the tip of the iceberg, there’s another whole pyramid of seriously important transportation projects in the state that still have not been addressed.”

The transportation commission estimated last year that unfunded transportation needs in California would hit $160 billion by the end of the decade.

Given how far the transportation bond funds may go, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, and other lawmakers have hinted they may seek more transportation funding from voters, possibly as early as next year. But transportation advocates and lawmakers are torn about whether to do so.

Earlier this year, Schwarzenegger announced that he wants lawmakers and voters to approve another massive round of borrowing — $43.3 billion — but none of that money would go to roads.

Some transportation advocates say that before they tack more road money onto that plan, they must show voters results in the form of new pavement. Others say more bond money for transportation is simply the wrong way to go.

The short list of highway projects the transportation commission funded Feb. 28 illustrates that the state cannot fix all its woes with bond money, said Stuart Cohen, executive director of the Oakland-based Transportation and Land Use Coalition.

Proposition 1B was the largest single bond ever placed before California voters, allocating $4.5 billion of the total for relieving highway congestion. The rest of Proposition 1B money is earmarked for public transit, port and local transportation projects.

Some of the bond money was earmarked for specific projects, such as $1 billion for Highway 99 improvements.

“It’s a massive amount of money, but clearly not enough,” said Cohen, who has been pressing lawmakers to index the state’s 18-cent gas tax to inflation or take other steps to fund transportation projects without cutting into the state’s general fund.

As is common with bonds, the state will pay nearly $1 in interest for every dollar spent under Proposition 1B. The state’s nonpartisan legislative analyst estimates the total payback over 30 years will be $38.9 billion — or more than the annual general fund budgets of every state except New York and California.

John Barna, the transportation commission’s executive director, cautioned critics to wait and see how the commission does delivering on the projects approved Feb. 28 before drawing conclusions about the funding mechanism or their effectiveness.

Barna also said he believes many of the projects that didn’t make the cut still have a chance of winning funding under other sections of the bond. The way the bond is funding pressing needs may free up other yearly transportation money to pay for other projects on the list.

“Certainly for projects that didn’t get the kind of funding they were looking for, I think there’s an opportunity to work together and find funding for those nominators — not many years or decades from now but in the next two, three or four years,” Barna said.

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