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LA Leaders Address Transit Problems - 2002-11-19

Los Angeles officials say the city's transportation system is overburdened and its highways dangerously crowded. The region's traffic woes were illustrated dramatically earlier this month. On the crowded Long Beach Freeway, 194 cars and trucks crashed in a chain reaction early one foggy morning. Miraculously, no one was killed, but dozens of people were injured, and lawsuits stemming from the crash will push damages into the millions of dollars.

The accident is a symptom of a larger problem, says Roger Snoble, who heads the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the agency that coordinates transportation for Los Angeles County. "According to the Texas Transportation Institute, which studies these kinds of things, we have the worst congestion in the country. And I don't think that's far off," he says. "We just simply have more cars than the pavement can accommodate. And that causes everybody a great deal of cost, expense, and a lot of loss in life and injuries and property and all those kinds of things."

Mr. Snoble says there is more bad news: Los Angeles is growing and its congestion is going to get worse. "It's going to grow by another 30 percent in population by 2025. That's like adding the city of Chicago into the L.A. county population of 10 million people now," he says.

Local officials and business leaders say Los Angeles has been fighting its traffic problems without enough help from federal officials. They admit that is partly their own fault because the communities in Southern California cooperate only when facing a crisis.

Los Angeles collects and send to the state and federal capitals $1.2 billion a year in taxes earmarked for highways and transportation. Only $1 billion of it comes back to the community. Rusty Hammer, president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, says participants in this summit are determined to change that. "Every member of our state legislative delegation is involved in today's event," he says. "The outpouring of support from public officials, from the business community, is a signal that people now know that it's time for us to get our act together."

New technology and better coordination can ease congestion, says Roger Snoble of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Among methods now used are car-pool lanes reserved for vehicles with multiple occupants, and - a frightening idea for Californians accustomed to their "freeways" - toll highways. "Pricing for different places, toll ways. But there are things that we do here that nobody else does, like our "rapid bus," says Mr. Snoble.

Los Angeles has express buses that travel the city's busiest routes, stopping only each kilometer or two. They are equipped with transmitters that coordinate traffic signals to the give the buses priority, allowing them to speed along major arteries to transportation hubs.

In recent years, Los Angeles has also built a subway and light-rail system. Although they link only a handful of neighborhoods, they are very popular. County official Zev Yaroslovsky says they disprove the notion that Los Angeles residents refuse to get out of their cars. "Angelenos want a better alternative to sitting in their cars for two hours one-way going to work," he says. " And it is our job and our challenge to give them that alternative."

Transportation official Roger Snoble says there is no single solution to the growing traffic problems of Los Angeles, but different remedies for each transportation corridor. The solutions Los Angeles finds, he says, will benefit other other U.S. cities as well. "This is the best transportation laboratory in the country, and what we are today, many of the emerging cities through the south and even in the east are going to be experiencing these same kinds of dilemmas," says Mr. Snoble. "Also the more solutions we can bring to the fore now, the easier time they'll have in accommodating their growth."

The officials and business leaders say better coordination, and coordinated demands for more highway and transit funds from the federal government, will be steps toward solving the city's transportation problems.