Jammed Wilshire Girds for Repairs

Travel along the Westside's main business corridor, Wilshire Boulevard, can be dreadful, testing the patience of drivers. That's been especially true the last six months, as crews laying down telecommunications gear have been repeatedly digging up the Miracle Mile area, tying up traffic at times for a half-mile or more.

Now, the traffic nightmare is about to move west. The city of Beverly Hills next week launches a seven-month project to repave the entire 2.6-mile stretch of Wilshire through that city, from the Beverly Hilton Hotel on the west to San Vicente Boulevard on the east.

While most of the major work on the $3 million project will be done at night, rush-hour commuters will still feel the impact as a lane is taken away in each direction.

"The stretch of Wilshire from the Miracle Mile area to Westwood is already one of the region's most crowded thoroughfares," said Dana Gabbard, executive secretary of Southern California Transit Advocates. "This project will wipe out any give in the traffic system on Wilshire during rush hour, creating blocks and blocks of cars standing still in traffic jams."

That's precisely why Beverly Hills officials stipulated that the contractor, All American Asphalt of Corona, keep at least two lanes open in each direction during daylight hours and do most of the heavy paving work at night.

"It lengthens the duration of the contract, but with Wilshire being such a major thoroughfare, it's next to impossible to do major operations during the day," said Chris Theisen, the city public works department official overseeing the project.

City officials readily admit the project will have adverse impacts on both commuter traffic and local businesses, but they say the work is necessary maintenance for such a heavily traveled road. If it isn't done now, they say, the road could deteriorate to such a point that it would need much more work and cost millions of additional dollars to fix.

The actual repaving work is due to begin in late September and last until Thanksgiving. In the two months until that period and again for two months afterwards, subcontractors will be working on the medians, the sidewalks, bus benches and other related improvements. No work will be done during the holiday shopping season between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.

While all the details have yet to be finalized, Theisen said the work would most likely begin for each phase of the project on the western end of the city, near the Beverly Hilton, and proceed eastward through the city.

Word slowly getting out

So far, the reaction from the local business community has been muted, in part because the contract was only finalized last month and word has been slow to get out. The city only sent out flyers to local businesses last week.

Local business leaders believe the project will be similar to the South Beverly Drive resurfacing project last year (between Wilshire and Olympic boulevards), which inconvenienced some businesses, but wasn't severe enough to force shops out of business.

But that hasn't stopped some businesses from seeking special dispensation from the city. Concerned about nighttime noise from the repaving, the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel is in discussions with the city to have the repaving work in front of the hotel done during the Jewish High Holy Days at the end of September.

"We're trying to schedule that paving work for that week because it is traditionally one of the quietest times of the year for us, with few banquets and a seasonal low of guests," said general manager and regional vice president Peter O'Colmain. "I would encourage all businesses affected by the project to identify similar time periods."

Of course, it doesn't hurt that the Regent Beverly Wilshire is the single largest private-sector payer of taxes to the city, when the business license tax, the bed tax and sales taxes are added up, according to O'Colmain.

Officials with the other major hotel on Wilshire, the Beverly Hilton, could not be reached last week for comment.

Hotels and restaurants stand to suffer disproportionate impacts from the nighttime construction, since most other businesses along Wilshire close down by 6 p.m.

By far the bigger concern, though, is traffic congestion, especially if the construction deters would-be shoppers and tourists from coming into the area.

"The city has got to make sure that mechanisms are in place to handle the traffic flows," said Michael Robinson, spokesman for the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce. "We're especially concerned with taking a lane away during rush hour and the installation of new medians."

City officials say that, if the traffic becomes too congested, drivers will seek out alternative streets, especially Olympic Boulevard, which parallels Wilshire most of the way through the city. Of course, that would also take people away from the city's prime retail shopping district, known as the Golden Triangle.

Transit advocate Gabbard points out that streets like Olympic and Santa Monica boulevards already operate at or near capacity during rush hour and have little ability to absorb even more traffic.

"The entire east-west commute through the Beverly Hills area is simply going to be a nightmare, and people will get increasingly creative finding ways around it," Gabbard said.

More construction planned

And once this project wraps up in mid-February 2002, there is the likelihood that another one may follow.

"What gets me angry is that about four months after the repaving is completed, a utility company or a cable company will likely come along and dig a trench in the newly repaved roadway," groused Harold Katz, chairman of the Transportation and Planning Committee of the Los Angeles Business Council. "That happened after they repaved Wilshire between the Beverly Hills' western border and Brentwood."

And, warns Gabbard, some additional repaving work will likely be necessary to set up the dedicated rush-hour bus lane along Wilshire that the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority approved on June 28. However, that work is still at least a couple years away.

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