Local transportation officials are set to vote next week on two controversial transit projects that would connect Downtown to the beach at a cost of up to $1 billion.
One project calls for a $350 million bus lane down Wilshire Boulevard from the Metro Red Line station at Western Avenue; the other would either be a $300 million busway or a $650 million, 16-mile rail line down Exposition Boulevard from USC. Both would terminate in Santa Monica within blocks of the ocean.
While MTA officials see the projects as another step in the badly needed expansion of the transit system, there is plenty of opposition. Local elected officials, homeowners and even some businesses view the proposals as too disruptive of the surrounding neighborhoods. As an alternative, they are urging the MTA use the funds to expand its successful year-old Rapid Bus program.
"With these rapid buses, we finally have something that works and people actually like," said Gary Russell, president of the Wilshire Center Chamber of Commerce. "Let's add to that already existing system on an incremental basis before we pour hundreds of millions of dollars into some completely new and untested system."
The 13-member board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is set to vote on both projects June 28. If approved, they would still need further environmental scrutiny and funding would have to be secured from Sacramento and Washington. The start of construction would be two years away, at the earliest.
"This is indeed a big vote. We're finally going to have some direction on how to connect the Westside to the rest of our transit system," said David Mieger, the MTA's project manager for the Westside transit projects.
Since the MTA board gave initial approval to these projects 15 months ago, its staff has scaled back the Wilshire line from an exclusive busway to a more conventional bus lane. "We had a lot of opposition to the purely dedicated bus lane concept," Mieger said. "So we came up with a design halfway between that and the rapid bus system we have now."
Under the revised plan, the bus lane would be exclusive only during rush hour; the rest of the time buses would travel in traffic as they do now.
Other changes would be the introduction of articulated or double-decker buses to relieve overcrowding, and bus stops that resemble Metro Red Line stations with ticket dispensing machines and digital readouts.
But the Wilshire line still faces a huge hurdle: opposition or indifference from the cities of Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. Beverly Hills has refused to participate in signal coordination for the rapid bus network, citing disruption to pedestrian and vehicular traffic in its retail core. Without its cooperation, the proposed bus line essentially would stop at the Beverly Hills line.
The Exposition Boulevard line plan already has been modified as a result of local opposition. MTA officials rerouted it around the Cheviot Hills area of West L.A. down to Culver City after homeowners there raised concerns about noise and safety of the trains or buses.
The detour added a mile as well as considerable expense to the route. It also has emboldened other opponents along the route to ask for detours around their neighborhoods.
MTA officials see a silver lining: the adjusted route will now go near the heart of Culver City. That would allow people to use the rail or bus line to get to Sony Pictures Entertainment studios, downtown Culver City and the Brotman Medical Center complex, which MTA officials believe would boost ridership considerably.
And there is community support as well.
"We desperately need a transit link between downtown and the Westside," said Darrell Clarke, co-chair of Friends 4 Expo Transit, which supports the rail line proposal down Exposition. "There is so much opposition along Wilshire that the only really effective place for transit is along Exposition. And light rail has more capacity, is faster, and more attractive for luring people out of their cars than buses."
Current ridership projections call for 29,300 daily passenger trips for a bus lane down Exposition Boulevard and 51,400 passenger trips for a rail line. (The Wilshire bus lane would have 39,000 passenger trips.)
This week, MTA staff is expected to recommend to the board whether to proceed with the rail line or the less expensive bus lane for that route.
"Clearly, the same amount of money will take you farther with a bus route than with rail," Mieger said. "But you sacrifice ridership capacity, since rail cars can hold many more people than even articulated buses can."
While one of the options will get the nod from the staff, neither is assured of passing the board. County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who happens to be wrapping up her term this month as chairman of the MTA board, opposes both plans.
Burke has cited several constituencies along the route which passes through much of her district who are opposed to the project, besides the Cheviot Hills homeowners whose concerns the MTA sought to assuage with the rerouting.
Burke aide Glenda Wina said the L.A. Unified School District Board of Education has expressed concerns about the rail line passing near Dorsey High School and two other schools along the route.
Wina also said Burke is dubious of ridership projections, especially those showing that a rail line could take as many as 16,500 cars a day off the nearby Santa Monica (10) Freeway.
Finally, there is the money problem. Federal guidelines call for funding only a "fixed-guideway" project such as a rail line or exclusive busway, not for a more conventional bus line. If those guidelines were enforced, that would force MTA officials to seek money from the increasingly bare cupboard in Sacramento.
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