Transportation/20 inches/dt1st/mark2nd

By LARRY KANTER

Senior Reporter

Somebody has got to do something about all this traffic. And they are... sort of.

Transportation planners have billions of dollars worth of improvement projects on the drawing boards everything from more highway message boards broadcasting alternate routes to large-scale infrastructure projects like the Alameda Corridor.

How those projects fare could have a significant impact on L.A.'s economy in the years to come.

Of course, when it comes to large-scale transit projects, ambition can far outstrip execution. Just ask the folks at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority which, after spending hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of more than a decade, have seen its long and expensive love affair with a fixed-rail subway system draw to a close.

In November, L.A. County voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition A, a measure authored by supervisor and MTA board member Zev Yaroslavsky that banned the use of local sales-tax revenues for subway construction. The move effectively puts the spotlight on the agency's overcrowded bus system.

That's where the focus should have been all along, local transit analysts say.

"People think of Los Angeles as an auto-intensive place. But we move more people by bus than any other city in the country," said James E. Moore II, a professor of urban planning at USC. "We have a large transit-dependent population. By making some very poor decisions, we have managed to hurt the people who are least able to sustain economic injury."

No one bears the brunt of traffic congestion more than the region's hundreds of thousands of bus riders, many of whom are forced to travel long distances on a deteriorating fleet of buses. The Bus Riders Union, an activist group, claims that some 40 percent of the buses in the MTA's fleet are eligible for retirement, meaning that the vehicles are either 12 years old or have driven 500,000 miles.

The MTA last month authorized the purchase of 2,095 buses over the next six years to replace its ailing fleet. Moore and other urban planners say those vehicles might be best deployed along a series of busways new lanes either on freeways or on streets solely dedicated to buses, which could move commuters more efficiently.

That appears to be the most cost-effective option. The per-mile cost of a busway at ground level ranges from $12.4 million to $14.9 million, according to a recent MTA study, compared with $51.7 million to $81.6 million for light rail and as much as $271 million a mile for subways.

But don't rule out rail forever. A light-rail line connecting Pasadena to downtown is still on track, administered by a newly formed agency. The MTA, meanwhile, continues to study future light-rail and even subway extensions on the Eastside and Mid-Cities areas.

Fixing mass transit is only one small piece of an increasingly confusing puzzle.

Traffic counts on the freeways have been climbing steadily since bottoming out during the depths of the recession in 1994. Caltrans plans to add a carpool lane to all of L.A. County's freeways by 2000 in an effort to ease congestion. The agency also plans to expand its so-called "smart freeway" program, which uses electronic message boards to inform drivers about traffic snares and direct them to alternate routes along city streets.

On those streets, the MTA and the city Department of Transportation are expanding their system of electronically synchronized traffic signals. According to a 1994 study by the city, such systems lead to a 12 percent improvement in travel times, a 32 percent reduction in delays and a 30 percent drop in stops.

Meanwhile, the Alameda Corridor, the $2.4 billion expressway for trains that will link the ports of L.A. and Long Beach to the distribution centers near downtown, finally broke ground in 1998 and is scheduled for completion in 2002. The project, which moves slow-moving trains below grade, is expected to significantly reduce the number and duration of traffic jams throughout the industrial areas of South Los Angeles.

Still, congestion is destined to be a fact of life for a long time to come. The Southern California Association of Governments projects that by 2020, Southern California's population will increase by 6.7 million people the equivalent of two Chicagos. And it's a safe bet that most of those newcomers will be driving to work, just like the rest of us.

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