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Story from The Daily News: Arnold blocks fix for 405; Inaction means gridlock for years

Location: Van Nuys, CA

Story from The Daily News: Arnold blocks fix for 405
Inaction means gridlock for years

By Lisa Mascaro, Staff Writer

Van Nuys, CA. - Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration has jeopardized a deal to get $400 million in federal funds to fast-track adding a critical car-pool lane on the northbound San Diego Freeway into the San Fernando Valley, Rep. Howard Berman charged Monday.

Schwarzenegger aides acknowledged that the administration is more concerned with the Alameda Corridor East project and fears that throwing its full support behind easing congestion on the 405 Freeway might jeopardize funding for the effort to move freight more quickly out of the harbor area.

But Berman, D-Van Nuys, said the 405 funding is extra money the state could get to dramatically speed up construction of the car-pool lane now scheduled for completion in 2018.

He said time is running out on the deal and accused the Schwarzenegger administration of dashing hopes to get the lane that would provide enormous relief for thousands of commuters.

"It's unfathomable why California leaders won't fight for California," said Berman.

"I'm pretty upset. This was a chance to speed up (construction). I don't see an administration hungry to take advantage of a chance of getting some federal money that will go to some other state.

"This is not the guy who's out there demanding California get its fair share -- 'the Collectinator."'

Time is running out on the deal. The federal highway bill is in the final stages of negotiations before a conference committee on which Berman has won support for the 405 Freeway project that would create a car-pool lane from Interstate 10 through the heavily congested Sepulveda Pass to the 101 Freeway.

But state officials said their priority has been on goods-movement projects -- notably for the Alameda Corridor East, where they are counting on $900 million to provide grade separations for freight across the San Gabriel Valley and points east.

They say they are doing the best they can to support the 405 project but that it came into the legislative process late -- after they had already formed a consensus around 388 projects for California.

"We don't dispute this is potentially a huge shot in the arm for mobility in California, but we have in essence, with the exception of the (Alameda Corridor East) and some goods-movement projects, not endorsed any of those 388 that are not regional in nature," said John Barna, deputy secretary for transportation in the state's Business, Transportation and Housing Agency.

"Because this emerged late in the consensus-building process, we have been trying to do what we can. We have tried to do what we think is reasonable within the consensus principles."

Berman has been working for the past three years to get funding for a northbound car-pool lane on the San Diego Freeway, one of the main arteries between the Valley and the Westside.

The money would build the high-occupancy-vehicle lane from the Santa Monica Freeway to the Ventura Freeway -- one of the last car-pool lanes to be built for a grinding commute through the Sepulveda Pass.

He has won support from the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to get the allotment into the massive nearly $300 billion highway bill pending before Congress.

But the committee wants support from the state on two fronts: a 20 percent contribution toward the cost and a pledge to get work seriously under way during the 4-year life of the bill.

Berman said the state's response has been lukewarm.

"There's no zeal, no intent to make both happen," Berman said.

State transportation officials responded in two letters to the congressman that goods movement was their top priority.

"We would not want to see funding for the Alameda Corridor East diminished," wrote Sunne Wright McPeak, who heads the administration's Business, Transportation and Housing Agency.

State officials also wrote that it would be impossible to finish the project under the required time frame without utilizing a construction process called "design-build" -- which has been shot down by the Legislature this session.

Barna said the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency cannot commit to a fast-track construction schedule until it can get the Legislature to allow the design-build process.

"We are working very hard in Sacramento to get that," he said. "We would have loved to have said this is going to be our design-build poster child."

With only days left until the federal conference committee wraps up negotiations on the highway bill -- ending the chance to add or delete items before it goes to Congress for approvals -- the chance to get the 405 project fades.

Rep. James L. Oberstar of Minnesota, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said talks will be concluded soon.

"It makes it difficult for us to advocate on behalf of House members for this project since the state is not forthcoming," he said.

"I'd support it because I believe the need has been demonstrated now and the growth trend for the future is such that, if investments are not made within the next five years, 10 years from now it'll be one of the poster children for congestion in America."

Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association President Richard Close, who drives the 405 on most weekdays to work on the Westside, remains hopeful the governor will provide the leadership needed to seal the deal.

"The traffic jams on the 405 northbound affect all residents of the Valley and anyone trying to do business in the Valley. Unless we get this money now, we may not get the required money for another 15 years. It's all in the hands of the governor."

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