MTA Rolling Out Plan to Overhaul City Bus Routes

By HOWARD FINE
Staff Reporter

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority plans to propose a sweeping overhaul of its bus-route system and expand the use of bus-only lanes on crowded city streets.

Later this month, transit officials are set to roll out a plan to build dozens of transit hubs throughout the county. Bus routes that are now laid out in a grid system would gradually be realigned to connect to these hubs.

Along with the expanded bus-only lanes, the changes will affect not only bus riders who will see routes added and dropped, but also drivers who compete with buses for space on city streets.

"The system we have in place now was developed over 30 years ago," said John Catoe, deputy chief executive officer for the Los Angeles MTA. "What we want to do is to reduce the trip time for bus riders, by speeding buses along busy corridors and by having fewer transfers."

The most immediate change is likely to be the exclusive bus lane that's now in a trial run during rush hours on a 1.25-mile stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, between Federal Avenue and the Santa Monica city line. The lane runs along the curb on each side of Wilshire; to accommodate the smooth bus service, parking, which had been permitted during rush hours, is now banned.

Last March, the MTA and the city of Los Angeles agreed to a six-month trial of the bus-only lane over the objections of local merchants who feared that removing parking spaces on Wilshire would cut into their business.

Despite some initial confusion, MTA staff is set to report the trial-run a success and recommend expansion of the lanes. If the board approves the expansion, new lanes could start appearing next year elsewhere on Wilshire and on other major streets.

"Not only are buses getting through that stretch much more quickly, but the overall traffic flow has been improved because the buses no longer have to weave in and out of traffic lanes," Catoe said. "What's more, we have found there have been fewer accidents along that stretch."

The rush-hour bus-only lanes are also much cheaper to set up than dedicated busways, such as the $330 million Orange Line now under construction through the San Fernando Valley.

The total cost for the Wilshire pilot program was $160,000. Most of that was for the restriping of the street, the installation of warning signs and outreach efforts to local businesses and residents.

Other stretches of Wilshire are being considered for the expansion of the lanes.

Bus lane critics

Jean Shigematsu, vice president of community affairs for the West Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, says local business owners have lost foot traffic as a result of the elimination of parking spaces. "Our members are not happy with this at all, especially if it's going to be made permanent," Shigematsu said.

Another concern is traffic. Along other sections of Wilshire and many other streets in the region, parking is already prohibited during peak hours, so putting in bus-only lanes would take away a lane of traffic.

"The MTA's original plan was to run this program along much of Wilshire Boulevard and we were concerned back then about taking away a lane of traffic," said Jeff Spring, spokesman for the Automobile Club of Southern California. "We still feel this needs a very careful review before any further expansion takes place."

Catoe said the MTA would work with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation and other local transit agencies to gauge the impacts before setting up additional bus-only lanes.

The group representing bus riders, though, is happy with the lanes.

"We really want to see more of these," said Manuel Criollo, spokesman for the Bus Riders Union, an advocacy group. "The problem has been that until now, they've always taken the most expensive approach, making it a grade-separated lane, instead of the much more feasible re-striping of the road."

Transit centers

While additional bus-only lanes could appear as early as next year, the overhaul of the bus-route system is at least two years off, Catoe said. A preliminary plan will likely go to the board later this year.

The goal is to realign the bus system to more closely follow bus-rider travel patterns and to reduce time-consuming transfers. Called Metro Connections, it would somewhat resemble the hub-and-spoke system that most domestic airlines follow at the nation's airports.

The key to the overhaul is the setting up of 40 transit hubs throughout the county 18 regional centers and 22 local ones. Each transit hub would have park-and-ride lots and many would offer amenities such as sandwich shops, bicycle lockers and waiting areas.

Most of the 18 regional hubs would be along major transit corridors like rail lines, Rapid Bus lines or already existing transit centers. "These regional hubs are meant to feed into high capacity corridors," said MTA planner Nancy Micheli.

Some of the transit centers already exist, such as one in El Monte, another at the end of the Red Line in North Hollywood and one in downtown Santa Monica. Others are planned for areas already owned by the MTA, like a future Eastside rail station in East Los Angeles.

The remaining half-dozen regional centers would be in areas owned and operated by cities or local transit systems such as those in Santa Monica or Long Beach.

The local transit centers would be geared more to specific regions in the county, like the San Gabriel Valley, the South Bay, the Westside, or the mid-cities area southeast of downtown Los Angeles.

Few details of the plan have been released. "It all depends on how this is implemented," Criollo said. "In some instances, this could be better for bus riders, if it actually means fewer transfers. But we're concerned that this will be an excuse to actually cut bus service."

Potential stumbling blocks could be neighborhood opposition to the building of the transit centers, as well as cooperation from the cities in the MTA network, said Dana Gabbard, executive secretary of Southern California Transit Advocates. But he added that the overall idea is sound.

"This could prove the spark for re-orienting the region towards mass transit, especially if it's done in concert with smart zoning and smart growth," he said.

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