Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s decision in late December to halt a construction project on the Interstate 405 freeway (I-405 or San Diego Freeway) has angered local lawmakers and some Westside residents whose lives have been impacted by the freeway improvements.

“[In December], the Legislature asked Californians to pay higher taxes and fees without making a real attempt to put Californians back to work and help them keep their homes,” the governor told reporters on December 22nd. “Because of the Legislature’s continued failure to pass a real budget solution, funding for infrastructure projects like this I-405 widening project has been stopped.”

The freeway project is designed to expand the heavily traveled 405 Freeway between Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and the 101 Freeway in the San Fernando Valley. The ten-mile northbound high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) project would complete the carpool system on 405 from the State Route 14 freeway on the north to the Orange County line.

The HOV construction project is designed to reduce 23,000 hours of congestion per day, according to state transportation officials.

The public works project is yet another victim of the budget crisis that has gripped the state like a vice for nearly a year. The state is now facing a deficit of approximately $42 billion and state lawmakers are seeking a mixture of tax hikes, fees and additional cutbacks in order to balance the budget. Social services, education and transportation top the list of items that face the budget ax.

Maria Raptis, a spokeswoman for District Seven of the California Department of Transportation, told The Argonaut that funding for the project had been halted.

“Bond projects that have not been awarded funding will not be awarded any funding,” Raptis confirmed.

John Buckley, an area director for the Del Rey Neighborhood Council, says that his neighborhood advisory board has heard the problems that many of their constituents who live near the freeway have lodged. Among the complaints are that the project is long overdue and the residual things, such as late-night construction, trash left behind by workers and dirt and debris from construction have impacted their lives.

“Residents who live near the freeway have brought these concerns before our council,” said Buckley. “We’ve been trying to have discussions with [City Councilman] Bill Rosendahl’s office about these issues.”

Residents in Del Rey who live near the Venice and Culver Boulevard exits of the 405 have complained that the current widening project construction for high occupancy lanes from the Marina Freeway to the 405 has already gone on long past what Caltrans (California Department of Transportation) officials told them several years ago, and now, with the work stoppage, they don’t expect the situation to improve.

“It can be often very difficult to access the 405 north,” said Del Rey Homeowners and Neighbors Association president Chris Nevil. “Given the history of the neighbors who live near the freeway and Caltrans, I think that if the current widening project had been completed earlier, this might not seem so bad to them.”

Rosendahl said he was dismayed when he learned of the governor’s intention to halt the freeway construction, part of which has been under way since 2004.

“Where the 405 and the 101 freeways meet is the most congested interchange in the nation,” said the councilman, who noted that many of his constituents commute to work. “This is a project that must go forward.”

Assemblyman Ted Lieu said he was bewildered by the governor’s decision to stop the HOV lane project.

“That makes no sense to me,” he said in an interview a week after Schwarzenegger’s announcement. “We sent the governor a $18 billion package of cuts and fee increases that he could sign right now, but he refuses to sign it.”

Schwarzenegger did not offer a timetable on when the project might resume.

The state Pooled Money Investment Board (PMIB) voted in December to stop $3.8 billion in state infrastructure financing over the next six months, which includes the project that the governor has stopped.

The freeway improvements are paid with funding from Proposition 1B, a transportation and infrastructure bond passed by California voters in 2006. Over the last two years, funding allocations for the bond have swelled to nearly $4 billion.

“Proposition 1B is paying for vital transportation projects that relieve traffic congestion, which helps greatly when Californians are spending more than four dollars per gallon on gasoline,” said Caltrans director Will Kempton in July.

In addition to the Proposition 1B allocations, the California Transportation Commission allocated $805 million for 268 other transportation projects, according to the Caltrans Web site.

Buckley, who commutes from Del Rey to Woodland Hills, where he works, says that the cancellation of the HOV lane project is frustrating, given the fact that this will mean continued freeway congestion.

“What really frustrates me is that this is a difficult area to drive through,” he said.

Rosendahl said that the decision to postpone the freeway improvements amounts to nothing short of political posturing by the governor.

“The governor is playing politics with this project by holding it hostage,” the councilman asserted. “It’s really a cheap shot, and in a time of congested freeway traffic and long commutes, this project needs to move forward.”

Buckley concurs.

“I feel like we’ve been thrown in the middle of a battle between the legislature and the governor,” he added.

Ken Alpern, a Mar Vista resident who is a president of the Transit Coalition, a Sylmar-based nonprofit organization dealing with issues of transportation mobility and land-use planning, feels that this is the result of lawmakers who do not take their constituents concerns seriously.

“This is the price that we pay when we don’t send adults to Sacramento to do an adult’s job,” he said.

Schwarzenegger cast the postponement of the improvement project as the result of the inability of Sacramento lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat, to reach a consensus on getting a handle on the state’s fiscal crisis.

“So instead of bulldozers, cranes and construction workers getting to work, all we’ll have is more gridlock,” said the governor. “This not only halts job creation and economic stimulus across California, but it also impacts our quality of life.

“The time for political posturing is over — it’s time the state legislature starts solving problems instead of creating them.”

Transit Coalition executive director Bart Reed also had harsh words for the governor.

“Our organization is working on economic stimulus projects that will benefit the economy, and the governor is taking an action that is going to be very harmful,” he said. “This is an example of the governor creating a recession and doing real damage to Southern California.”

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