DESIGNATED BUS LANES ARE THE LATEST TRANSIT PLAN FOR WILSHIRE BOULEVARD

For years, L.A. transit officials have wanted to run a mass transit route down Wilshire Boulevard the city's busiest east-west commercial corridor.

But when funding for subway construction dried up in the early 1990s, Wilshire was left out in the cold.

Now transportation officials have come up with a plan for a dedicated busway down the boulevard that would be far cheaper than building a rail line and move almost as many people nearly as quickly. One option calls for the buses to run down the middle of the street, and another to travel alongside the curbs.

Proponents of the $169 million project say that with fewer stops and no interference from other vehicles, the busway would take half as long as existing bus service to travel the 16-mile stretch from the Western Avenue Metro Red Line station to the transit terminal in Santa Monica.

Opponents, who include business and residential groups in the Mid-Wilshire and Miracle Mile areas, say the project would remove left-turn lanes, take away medians designed to beautify the Wilshire corridor and make it harder to find parking. They have launched a campaign to stop the busway in its tracks.

"We would definitely like to see a safer and more efficient bus system, but this simply has too much impact on the people who work and live here," said Wally Marks, executive director of the Miracle Mile Civic Coalition, a consortium of residents, businesses and property owners. "It would permanently alter and destroy the character of Wilshire Boulevard that we have worked so hard to cultivate."

There is also concern that as the buses increase congestion along Wilshire, commuters would seek other routes, further clogging residential side streets.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials acknowledge those concerns and say they intend to work with residents and businesses in the design of the busway.

"We're looking at several options," said Carol Inge, the MTA's director of rail, busway and bikeway planning. "For example, if we put the busway by the curb, then we can keep all the left-turn lanes and the medians. If we want to keep parking, we might just run the busways during peak traffic hours."

But either option would take away a lane of mixed-flow traffic and convert it to bus-only use.

Avoiding roadblocks

The MTA board gave the go-ahead last month for staff to study the environmental impacts of the busway. It could be a year or more before final approvals are given.

So far, opposition to the proposal is most intense along the section of Wilshire east of Beverly Hills, because that's where the MTA initially focused its planning and outreach efforts. But as word of the busway spreads west, concerns are expected to mount from Beverly Hills to Santa Monica.

Several years ago, Beverly Hills opposed a plan to turn Santa Monica Boulevard into a 10-lane superhighway from the San Diego (405) Freeway to Hollywood, essentially limiting that proposal to 2.5 miles between the freeway and Century City.

"We are monitoring the busway situation very closely," said Beverly Hills Transportation Director Maria Rychlicki. "We don't yet know the number of stops, or what the need for removal of parking spaces will be. And, if the first phase were to end on our eastern border at San Vicente, we would like to find out what the plans are for a transition" to local bus routes.

In Westwood, members of the Westwood Village Alliance hadn't yet heard details of the MTA's plan, and the group has no official position. But one alliance member, Frank Ponder, general manager of Bel Air Camera, said he favors the idea of a busway, as long as it doesn't go down the center of the street.

"I think it's a great idea in concept," Ponder said. "We've reached the point where we can no longer focus on just adding lanes for cars. We have to move people rather than cars."

But, Ponder said, putting a busway down the middle of Wilshire would be problematic.

"You have to deal with taking away more than one lane because you have to pick up people," Ponder said. "And the inability to make left turns would be a problem. It would be a lot easier if they decided to put the busway alongside the curbs."

Demise of the subway

Just a few years ago, Westside cities and business groups were aligned with the MTA in seeking funds for a subway extension to the Westside. They were eager to reduce mounting traffic congestion, both on surface streets and on the Santa Monica (10) Freeway.

Initially, that extension was to have run all the way down Wilshire. However, a 1985 methane gas explosion at the Ross Dress for Less store on Third Street just east of Fairfax Avenue soured planners on a subway through the Miracle Mile district. They sought alternate routes, including a detour down to Pico and San Vicente boulevards and the use of a rail line from the University of Southern California to southern Santa Monica.

Fighting over a Westside subway route continued for several years, until the MTA ran into serious fiscal problems and the funding spigot from Washington was tightened. The funding morass forced the MTA's new chief, Julian Burke, to abandon plans to build subway routes on the Westside, Eastside and through the San Fernando Valley. That move was confirmed by voters in November 1998 when they overwhelmingly approved a measure sponsored by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky banning the MTA from using local tax dollars for subway projects.

Money up for grabs

But the MTA still has a claim on $250 million in federal funds originally earmarked for a Westside subway extension. In order not to forfeit the money, Inge said, the agency has to come up with alternatives for the Wilshire corridor. Light rail and busways were looked at, with the MTA board choosing to study a busway because it is cheaper on a cost-per-mile basis to build and operate.

Wilshire is not the only Westside route under study. Late last month, the MTA board gave the go-ahead for staff to draft environmental documents for a light-rail or busway route along a rail route the agency owns paralleling Exposition Boulevard from USC to Santa Monica.

That proposal encountered so much opposition from homeowners in Cheviot Hills, that the MTA board is planning a route around that neighborhood.

Meanwhile, starting on June 24, the MTA plans to introduce a new generation of express buses along Wilshire from the Red Line station on Western to Santa Monica. While the busway plan has run into stiff opposition, the express bus proposal has the backing of local business and residential groups.

The system, referred to as Metro Rapid Bus, will use buses especially designed to move people more quickly. The buses will have no steps, allowing for faster boarding. They will also make fewer stops, about one every mile or so. And they will each be equipped with a special transponder that allows the driver to change a red signal to green as the bus approaches. (Ambulances and fire trucks have similar equipment.)

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