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Bumpy Road Ahead Under Gov's Proposed Budget

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

January 20 -- Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal to detour nearly $1.3 billion in state transportation money will mean costly delays in several projects to ease traffic congestion for Santa Monica and Westside travelers.

That's the current roadmap the governor's proposed $111.7 billion budget lays out for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1, City officials said.

Under the plan, Santa Monica can expect City road repairs cut back, nearly $1.5 million from the Big Blue Bus budget slashed and costly plans to bring a light rail system into Downtown Santa Monica delayed, City officials said.

"The travesty here is that money is being diverted while we are all drowning in traffic," said Mayor Pam O'Connor, who also serves on the Mass Transit Authority (MTA) board that oversees the light rail project.

The rail project would be directly affected by the budget, said O'Connor, delaying its extension Downtown by years and adding substantial dollars to its bottom line.

Despite the State funding woes, the $500 million project is still on track but faces "risks of being stalled further," possibly by several years, O'Connor said.

"It's hard to say specifically by how much the project could be delayed," the mayor said. "Is the project derailed? No, it's in the hopper."

Currently, there is only enough funding to extend tracks from Downtown Los Angeles into Culver City, the first phase of the project, which is estimated to be completed by 2009.

However, it now has become "critical," said O'Connor, to raise the initial $25 million for planning to begin phase two, which stretches the tracks into Santa Monica, because each year area motorists are dealing with more and more traffic.

Slowing down area travelers even further could be looming cuts totaling nearly $1.5 million in the City's Big Blue Bus system.

The first casualty would be the push to expand the bus system, said Stephanie Negriff, the City's director of Transit Services.

"These cuts would have the effect of stopping service expansion," said Negriff, although she did not rule of the possibility of "cuts in service and staff in the future."

The extent of the cuts would depend on whether there is any further siphoning from the State Transportation Account, the transit assistance program that affects local and regional transit operations, Negriff said.

The light rail expansion depends on a different funding mechanism, known as Proposition 42 funds, which come from gas taxes set aside by voters in 2002 for new freeway and transit projects.

Under the proposed budget, $1.3 billion in Proposition 42 funds slated to help bankroll 142 projects statewide would be suspended for the third year in a row.

More importantly, State transportation analysts said, is that the amount of time for the State to repay local governments for transit projects would be extended from three to 15 years.

"The problem is not that transportation projects are getting less money, it was that cities and counties were told to expect their money repaid within three years when they began these projects," said Joel Riphagen with the State's Legislative Analysts Office.

"They end up stopping and then starting projects, and there will be delays. In the end they just end up wasting a lot of money," Riphagen said, adding that areas can only expect repayment of only one fifteenth of what they are putting in.

While only a few local transit projects and operations will be directly impacted by the governor's proposed budget, the impact on LA County, and the Westside in particular, could be serious, local officials warn.

"Everything in this budget has a domino effect," said O'Connor. "In the end, this budget is going to end up hurting the whole area. The transportation situation on the Westside has an impact on the economy on the whole Los Angeles Region."

The budget comes at a time when portions of the Westside freeways average a rush-hour speed less than 10 miles per hour.
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