Michel: I was in the planning department here. I started shortly after incorporation. I worked on a lot of transportation issues the Metrolink station, some of the General Plan work on roads, mobile home parks, transportation grants. I did a variety of things with the city.
Signal: How long have you been with the MTA, and what are your responsibilities?
Michel: I've been at the MTA for 10 years, just about, and I currently manage a team of professionals who work on planning issues not only in the north county, but also San Fernando Valley, Arroyo Verdugo and Los Virgenes. We manage long-range studies such as the study for the north county. We do environmental studies for MTA projects such as the Orange Line, and we also administer the grants, many of which the north county has one and is now constructing.
Signal: This plan, the North County Highway Corridors Study, addresses what's going to be needed for Interstate 5 and state Routes 14 and 138 over the next 20 years. Who participated in the study?
Michel: It was all of the agencies that had an interest the cities, the county, Caltrans and other agencies, as well as the North County Transportation Coalition, which had members from each of those agencies as well as citizens and elected officials. We did a tremendous amount of outreach to the incorporated and unincorporated areas, so really the whole region was involved in it.
Signal: The study projects 187-percent growth in new homes over the next 20 years about 150,000 in Santa Clarita, Palmdale and Lancaster today, to about 450,000 in 20 years. Is it realistic to think the north county can absorb 300,000 new homes that fast basically triple today's number?
Roberts: It's a challenge. You ask if it's realistic. We're going to have to meet the challenge, because I think it's going to happen. If you look at SCAG's projections, it even projects a little more growth than that.
Signal: Who's SCAG?
Roberts: SCAG (Southern California Association of Governments) is the agency that is made up of the five counties that project needs and operate with the MTA, in a sense. They tell us what we can do and what we can't do, sometimes; we don't listen often I shouldn't say that, but that's the case. SCAG is in the mix, too, and they have these figures pretty well projected. And probably we're going to have to handle that somehow. How we do it? I don't know. That's what the planners are all about.
Signal: Here in Santa Clarita we're looking at Newhall Ranch in that time frame, with 21,000 new homes, and the 23,000-home Centennial project up the Grapevine on the Tejon Ranch. Of the 300,000 homes in the next 20 years, do you anticipate that the majority will be in the Antelope Valley or Santa Clarita?
Roberts: I think there will be a mix. I believe that those people who don't mind a bit of a longer commute might choose the Antelope Valley because of our advantageous housing prices and our land values that enable us to site people more easily with less money. But I think it's going to be pretty well split, because the proximity of Santa Clarita to Los Angeles which is really the big kahuna of all of this dictates that they're on top of the heap in terms of development.
Lancaster and Palmdale have the advantage because of the vast land that we have available and the cost of the land at this time, but that's not going to stay that way. As it grows, the land is going to increase in value, and as you run out of land, people are going to have a tendency to come more in our area. So that's a very, very challenging question that you just put to me.
Signal: Here in Santa Clarita, we have a number of community activists, environmental activists
Roberts: You're not alone. We have them in Lancaster and Palmdale.
Signal: Well, we have a contingent of people here who would like to see the growth slow down. Out in the Antelope Valley, are the city councils actively encouraging growth?
Roberts: I think we are at this point in time. Because over the years we have built our infrastructure in a way that we can enable that growth to take place. But there are those groups that are not in favor of it. At the present time, I think the city councils' base of power believes that growth is the way we should go.
Actually, I think it's more importantly thought of, we need to develop the jobs there so we get people off of the freeway to Los Angeles. In fact, some of the folks from here (live) in your region and drive to our city for jobs. That's kind of a silly thing to do, but that's what they're doing. And a lot of our people are driving down here or passing you and going to Los Angeles. We really out to worry and try to get the housing-jobs balance more in a mode that will enable (people) to live there and work there.
Signal: A lot of people who move to Palmdale and Lancaster will funnel right through Santa Clarita on their way to work in Los Angeles. Kevin, how is SR-14 going to accommodate all of that traffic if Frank's busy attracting all of that growth?
Michel: I do want to say that (the Highway Corridors Study) more of a highway plan, in that it includes improving and enhancing Metrolink service as well as the transit services that both Santa Clarita and the Antelope Valley have. So, we're going to be putting funding into that, as well. And those services have been very successful and growing.
I think finishing off the carpool lane where the 14 is going to be built up all the way to Avenue P-8; and we're working on carpool lanes up on the 5 you're really going to having to connect the network of carpool lanes so you can go down the 14 and then connect to the 5 and the 405 and the 118 and ultimately the 170 and the 134, so that really does create an incentive for people to form carpools. We've found that on freeways that have carpools, that carpool usage does go up, and people go through the trouble of finding a neighbor to ride with. I think some of those things will be very helpful.
I think the fact that jobs are growing up here is going to help out a lot. I think some of the "smart growth" work that's happening, where you're getting housing and jobs in close proximity, is helping up here, as well.
And I think that the fact that this region is kind of leading the county in making sure that developers pay a very significant share of the new infrastructure costs helps, as well. Particularly, when we have a "call for projects" and we're looking to award grant money, this region can put money on the table that you collect from the developers, and that's why you've done very well on the call for projects.
Signal: On the subject of alternate modes of transportation, something like 4 percent of commuters use Metrolink today. Do you expect the percentage to increase in the future?
Michel: I think that percentage can grow, particularly as the freeway travel gets more challenging, as it's going to take some time for the infrastructure to catch up. So I think that number can grow, and if you took those people out of the trains and put them out on the freeway, you would notice the difference. It would hurt the performance of the freeways.
Signal: Is MTA banking on people using alternate modes of transportation, or is the bulk of your effort focused on accommodating more cars?
Michel: Certainly we understand that we've got to accommodate the cars. We're doing a whole number of things to try to help the freeways operate better. I think one of the key problems is nonrecurring congestion where people get careless and have accidents. A lot of the congestion is caused by that.
We have the freeway service patrol, which are roving tow trucks, to help get people out of harm's way and keep the roads moving. We've been having a very active safety campaign; we've had the freeway signage to help let people know when there are accidents ahead and to take alternates. So I think we have a whole variety of strategies, and all of them are needed. We have a big challenge.
Roberts: I'm on the Metrolink board, and I have to say to you that Metrolink is a very valuable service, and (if not) for the earthquake that we had a few years ago in which the freeways went down we wouldn't have the Metrolink except for that earthquake. So we have to thank somebody for the earthquake, I guess, because we have the Metrolink.
Signal: We'll let you be thankful for the earthquake.
Roberts: Well, I don't know how else to put it. The point is, without the federal dollars and the things that came as a result of that earthquake, we might just now be building that Metrolink now to the Antelope Valley. And as far as the utilization, as soon as the Transit Center occurs in Palmdale where they don't have to (use a) roundabout to get onto that Metrolink, you're going to find greater use.
As a matter of fact, I'm told by the time they get down from Lancaster ... to your Metrolink stations here, people are standing to get all the rest of the way down (to Los Angeles). So we're going to have to add cars and do all sorts of things in Metrolink, more service.
Signal: Evidently the study indicates Metrolink will have to triple its capacity in the next 20 years.
Roberts: I think you're right. It's a great service.
Signal: What's the deal with the reversible carpool lanes on SR-14?
Michel: On the 14 freeway, we have this situation where the great preponderance of traffic is heading southbound in the morning, and in the afternoon it goes the other direction. So there is an opportunity to make the carpool lanes, both of them, flow southerly in the morning and reverse that in the afternoon, and then possibly, further on down the line, trying to create a triple carpool lane that will flow south in the morning and then north in the afternoon.
At this point, it's an idea. We think it has some merit. ... We're about to start a study that's going to take a little greater look at the technical feasibility and the details and see if it's as simple as it sounds. That study is just getting underway, and we're just getting a feel for what it might cost and what the decision points might be.
Signal: This is done somewhere else in the country, right?
Roberts: Texas very well developed.
Michel: I think San Diego was looking at it, as well. It's going to involve a whole series of engineering decisions, safety barriers, signage, ramps, interchange improvements and that's what we're going to look at. It seemed like it made sense from a traffic point of view; now we're going to get into the engineering details.
Roberts: Think if we didn't do something like that innovative things like that. How wide a freeway would we have to have on the 14 to get up there? How wide can we make the 405? Something's got to happen on those freeways. Those things are pits of parking places right now. We've got to do something.
Signal: It seems there are some physical limitations to widening the freeway through the Newhall Pass.
Roberts: Well, you can chop down the mountains, but you wind up without different rights-of-way and things of that nature.
Signal: How fast can people expect 14 to be widened?
Michel: In the short term, we're about to start the HOV job with the carpool lane from Pearblossom (Highway) up to (Avenue) P-8. That contract just got awarded and that's about to start.
Signal: Up in the north-north county.
Michel: Right. I mean, it seems abstract, perhaps, to Santa Clarita, but to the extent that it encourages people up north to form carpools, it does make the freeway more productive and helps relieve further down the pipeline. So I think it is helpful.
Signal: How about I-5?
Michel: The 5 in the short term, we're looking at starting construction on that segment south of the interchange of the 5 and the 14; that's about to get rolling, too. Even though it's primarily in the city of Los Angeles, it actually does help north county commuters in that it's now going to connect the HOV lanes to the 405 carpool lane to the 118 carpool lane.
So, currently, if you've gone to the trouble to form a carpool in the north county, you then get dumped into the mixed flow of traffic on the 5 and it takes you a while to (get) to another carpool lane. So that's what I'm talking about forming a network where it becomes seamless, and people have a great incentive to use it.
Signal: The 5 is to be widened initially with a truck lane?
Michel: To the north of the interchange, in the north county plan, the first improvement we're looking at is to get a carpool lane from the 14 up to the 126, and also to extend a truck lane from the 14 to Calgrove (Boulevard). And beyond that to extend the truck lanes up to the Castaic area, along with the carpool lanes, and ultimately to get a truck lane all the way up to the Kern County line.
Signal: Tejon Ranch is essentially at the western end of the SR-138 improvement project. How will traffic flow across the top of the county, and out toward Victorville?
Roberts: Well actually the 138 we're not going to do much to help (Tejon Ranch) at first, because we're working on the other end that goes from Palmdale on to Victorville. But ultimately, I think we're going to have to give some consideration to widening that Avenue D, I guess you call it right now. So that will have to happen. Can you imagine the number of cars that will be dumped onto the I-5 freeway and the 138 20,000 homes, is that what you said?
Signal: Well, 23,000 homes that we know about so far. A controversy developed between Tejon and the Antelope Valley over the alignment of the future high-speed rail corridor. Tejon wanted it to go up I-5, and you wanted
Roberts: We wanted it to go around the 14. We won, by the way. It looks like it's going to come through Palmdale and down this way rather than the other way. But if that happens in my lifetime, I'd be amazed.
Signal: It's a 30-something billion dollar project
Roberts: It's $42 billion now.
Signal: Last I looked it was $36 billion.
Roberts: Well, it's going up.
Signal: There was talk of putting the first piece of it, a $9.9 billion bond measure, on last year's ballot, but Gov. Schwarzenegger pulled it because of the budget crisis.
Roberts: Right, but that was for planning and some other things. So if you add that on to the $40 billion, you've got a real expense there that I'm not sure how we afford.
Signal: Are we ever going to see a high-speed rail line, and is it factored into this North County Highway Corridors study?
Michel: I think that it's in there, with the thought that if it's going to be built, it's going to take a lot of private-sector funding. It's there as a place-holder at this point.
Signal: What's the future of air travel in the north county?
Roberts: The Palmdale Regional Airport, I think, has great promise. But I think it's also a while away, because they have a lot of problems to solve. (Los Angeles World Airports) owns 17,000 acres out there that they'll eventually have to turn into runways. And I believe one day that Palmdale will be a viable airport.
Right now we have one line coming in there that goes to Las Vegas. It can do about 640 passengers a month. If you factor that and try to figure out what that one can do, you may have 6,000, maybe. It's going to be a while.
But on the other hand, what else do you do? No one wants to have to go all the way to LAX or even to Burbank to commute to wherever they're going in California. Of course, that is one of the reasons that they thought this bullet train is so advantageous. But on the other hand, if you figure the number of people that you can fit into a bullet train and how many cars you can shuffle onto the bullet train track, there's a limitation there, too. Transportation is a big problem in the state of California.
Signal: Sen. George Runner was recently talking about truck traffic and how to get it off the freeway. Evidently there's plan to put the freight that comes into the ports at Wilmington and San Pedro onto trains and bring it to Victorville. How does that come into play?
Roberts: You mean the logistics airport center?
Signal: Right. The logistics center and the moving of freight.
Roberts: We conjure up some plans that will help us. We're even having trouble through the Alameda corridor, getting that going. I believe we are. We're getting some more money for that and we're going to pump some more money into that and try to get that to flow. But gosh, what about 710? There's a problem. Trucks. The ports. We have a lot of problems that we have to handle.
Signal: Are we going to have the money to address these problems?
Michel: I think over time we will, but it's going to be difficult over these next few years. Our agency has gotten very interested in this "goods movement" issue because of the impact it's having on traffic. I know we've been working with the ports about trying to get them into a 24-hour operation and trying to take some traffic away during the peaks.
We're also starting a very comprehensive goods movement study to kind of look at this issue countywide, and how it relates to our adjacent counties, and we're putting a lot of resources into this. So we know it's a challenge and we're looking at it.
I think part of that north county study dealt with it as well, by having the 138 a High Desert corridor as a northern bypass to keep trucks out of the 5 and 14 interchange, as well as adding a truck lanes on the 5 to separate them from the rest of the traffic. In fact, the ultimate cross-section of the 5 in the Santa Clarita area is going to be four mixed-flow lanes, general purpose lanes, two truck lanes and two car pool lanes in this part of the county. You know, down the line.
Roberts: Some of us remember the time that we had the Olympics in Los Angeles and things were managed, coordinated
Signal: I assume you don't mean 1932.
Roberts: å32? Gee I was only one year old. No, I'm not talking about å32.
Signal: å84, then?
Roberts: We coordinated the flow of the trucks and they cooperated to the point that we didn't have a lot of problem with the trucks at that time. We had a pretty decent flow of traffic, too. So I think that's what some of us on the MTA at least are thinking about. Why can't a coordinated effort be mounted and at least be put forward? That will help the flow of those trucks along the 710. You still have the air pollution problem, and that's a big battle with us.
Signal: We're a zero-attainment area, which basically means we can't build anything if it's going to add to our smog.
Roberts: Well, you're going to have to have (hydrogen)-powered equipment so that what comes out of the tail pipe is a glass of water.
Signal: Speaking of water, where are we going to find enough water to support a tripling of our population in the next 20 years? And if we want a picture of where we're going, should we just take a north county map and color it in with homes so it looks like the San Fernando Valley?
Roberts: Well, I can tell you what the Antelope Valley is considering doing in fact, we're doing it. We have a 20-20 plan that takes the water that we use and produce waste water from. We recycle that and make it tertiary at least. If we have excess, we recharge it and save it and reuse it. Water doesn't go away. It just has to be purified to the extent (necessary).
There's a lot talk about porta-potty-to-tap or whatever they call it. But that's not the case. Water can be purified rather easily now, and it has become a common thing to filter it and use it again. So it's not going to go away. You've got the water, you've just got to plan it wisely.
We call our system up there the "purple pipe" system. The purple pipe is the pipe that flows (alongside) the potable, that allows you to do all your freeway watering, your median watering, your golf course watering and ultimately, if you have to, you go one more stage with that and it becomes potable.
So I think we're not planning carefully enough for water. I believe we're going to be OK with water if we just handle it wisely.
Signal: Kevin, how would you say we're doing in Santa Clarita in terms of planning our internal roadways and addressing the two freeways that run through our valley?
Michel: I think that you're giving a lot of thought to it. You engage in this cooperative planning effort with the other cities and the county, so you're looking ahead.
I think that the fact that you're making developers pay your share puts you in a leadership position in the county. I think you've been very smart in pursuing grant money and doing a good job of getting it.
As I drive around town looking at some of the new developments, you're creating some options, putting housing next to jobs and shopping, and just giving customers different products to look at and choose from. So I think you're doing the right things and you'll do well in the future.
Roberts: Let me pat this region on the back. You are planning ahead to the point where I believe you'll be sufficient in terms of the service to the people you bring in. I think that Santa Clarita is doing a great job. I think that you'll be able to handle the people that come to you, and you have great leadership in doing that.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.