By DANIEL TAUB

Staff Reporter

For nearly two decades, the solution to the San Fernando Valley's mass transit problem was believed to be an ambitious public-works project one that required a costly subway, a futuristic monorail or a state-of-the-art light-rail line.

These days, the expectations are considerably lower and are keyed to, of all things, the lowly bus.

The bus?

In car-crazed Los Angeles, the bus is seen as the transport of last resort used only by the very poor or the blind. But with transportation dollars becoming ever scarcer, the bus is being viewed as the backbone of transit planning especially in the Valley, where hopes of building an extensive rail network now seem as likely as snow in August.

"It's something I've been preaching for about two years," said Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who chairs the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's board. "Finally, in the last two months or so, the activists seem to be sold on it."

The concept is to set up so-called "dedicated busways" special lanes that only buses could use. In some cases, the busways may just be lanes painted on asphalt. In other places, they may be separate thoroughfares with their own bridges, or "flyovers," to carry them above intersections without being forced to stop.

Those routes would be combined with other public transit systems van shuttles, existing bus lines and the Metro Rail, which soon will reach the southeast Valley to allow residents to move across the Valley and to points beyond without an automobile, proponents say.

But even with an increasing consensus, several questions remain: Does the Valley have the political clout and will to make the dedicated busway system a reality? And even if it does, is the busway system best for the Valley particularly after its taxpayers have spent more than a billion dollars on the region's rail system?

Riordan said he is prepared to travel to Washington and lobby members of Congress to devote federal money to the busway system as a demonstration project.

"Right now it appears that, magically, everybody is getting on board on this, which you need," Riordan said. "You can be a leader, but if you don't have the consensus standing beside you, you don't get things done."

But support for dedicated busways in the Valley is not unanimous. Several question whether the area should really give up on rail.

"I think it's wrong to say that subway is dead or rail is dead, because we've learned that attitudes can change in Washington," said Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon, who serves as an alternate on the MTA board.

If there's agreement on one thing, it's that a "transit zone" needs to be created to give the Valley authority to plan the public transportation system for the area. A consensus on that was reached by the 16 members of Congress, state legislators, L.A. county supervisors and L.A. City Council members who attended last month's "Valley Transit Summit II."

Also last month, Alarcon won approval from both the City Council and the MTA board to study a "Valley Transit Zone." The zone would not separate the Valley from the control of the MTA, but would give it some planning independence, similar to that enjoyed by the 27 cities that run the Foothill Transit system in the San Gabriel Valley.

But Adrian Moore, director of economic studies at the Reason Public Policy Institute and author of a report on transportation options for the Valley, said that a transit zone as opposed to an independent transportation district is unlikely to give the Valley the power it needs to institute a busway system.

"I don't think creating a zone will be sufficient to leverage that kind of change out of the MTA," Moore said. "(The MTA has) never been willing to seriously discuss busways in the past, so I don't see that as consistent at all."

Furthermore, others question whether the busway which is based on a system used in Curitiba, Brazil, where Riordan aides visited is appropriate for the decentralized Valley sprawl.

"A lot of people took a beautiful trip down to Brazil," said Richard Close, co-chairman of Valley VOTE, which has pushed for the Valley's right to secede from the city. "But the Valley is not Curitiba."

Close said that Curitiba's system in which feeder buses and shuttles transport travelers to a central bus lines is only appropriate for an area where most people are traveling to a central downtown area.

As to whether the Valley has the ability and drive to make the busway system a reality, the answer was a resounding "yes" from many who attended last month's transit summit.

Former Assemblyman Richard Katz, who chaired the Assembly's Transportation Committee and who is now running for state Senate, said the emerging agreement on the issue is the clearest sign that a busway system can be a reality.

"What you have that was lacking in the past is real recognition that everyone is pulling in the same direction," Katz said, noting that in the past lawmakers have had widely varying opinions on transportation in the region. "We need to put those aside and all push in the same direction, or we won't get anything done for the Valley."

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