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Take a lesson from California

If we don't plan for increased traffic now, we'll be like L.A. down the road

Visitors headed south for their Los Angeles area home got started from Medford bright and early to make the trek. Seventeen and a half hours later, they arrived.

Well, you say, that snow storm was fierce, so the long trip's not that surprising.

But wait, this trip south on Interstate 5 took place Dec. 27, a day before the big winter storm arrived. So what turned a long 11- or 12-hour drive into 18 interminable hours? Traffic, too many people, too many cars, too many trucks, all trying to go the same direction.

We can shake our heads in dismay at the sad state of affairs that has befallen our driving brethren to the south. But if we do nothing to learn from their folly, we will likely find ourselves on the same car-clogged road, fouling the air with exhaust and exhausting ourselves in ever-longer commutes.

In 2003, California kept its dubious distinction as the most congested state in the nation. That's a title it's unlikely to give up ' especially since new Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently killed a &

36;1 billion anti-congestion program as part of his efforts to get the state's budget under control. That could cost the state transportation system more than &

36;5 billion when matching funds are lost.

Californians long have had a perverse pride in their freeway problems. They talk about their two-hour commutes like our grandparents once talked about their long walks through the snow to school.

— But the tales are less endearing when traffic adds six hours to your trip home from Oregon. And for Oregonians, those tales are beginning to hit a bit too close to home.

While we are years ' and tens of thousands of cars ' away from traffic jams even remotely resembling those of L.A., there is no denying that traffic is piling up around us. Take on the Barnett Road-I-5 interchange at 5 p.m. or Highway 62 in north Medford at almost any time of day and you'll find yourself in heavy traffic. It's not unusual for traffic on the interstate between Medford and Grants Pass to slow to a point below the speed limit.

In 1982, for urban areas in the United States, there was an average delay of 11 hours a year for drivers making what would have been 25-minute commutes in light traffic. The annual delay is now 54 hours. In other words, drivers in metropolitan areas are putting in almost an extra week and a half's work, just trying to get to work.

The costs of congestion include 5.7 billion gallons of wasted fuel and 3.5 billion hours of lost productivity. Those figures, resulting from traffic congestion in 2001, cost the nation &

36;69.5 billion, &

36;4.5 billion more than the previous year.

There are some hopeful signs. An annual report documenting efforts in several states shows gains being made through the use of several means: mass transit and carpool lanes, combined with traffic signal coordination, freeway incident management (clearing crashes and disabled vehicles) and the use of freeway entrance ramp signals.

We know those fixes are only delaying the inevitable. We also know that any long-term fix will be enormously expensive ' think mass transit, light rail, trains. But that long-term fix will one day not be optional ' at least it won't be if we want to do something in our spare time other than sit in traffic jams.

California's population and lack of good public transportation have doomed it to congested chaos. We should learn from that, or expect to find ourselves in a similar jam.