After seeing that a dedicated lane cut bus travel times by up to 14 percent along a West Los Angeles stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, transit officials want to expand the test program along Wilshire and other major streets.


But there has been resistance from the cities of Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, whose cooperation would be required for the program to realize its full potential.


Both cities are concerned that a bus-only lane on Wilshire would take away parking from local businesses and slow down vehicle traffic.


"No question it's going to be a difficult sell; this isn't going to happen next week or maybe even next year," said John Catoe, deputy chief executive of the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "There are definite impacts and the benefits take longer to realize."


The idea of the test was to eliminate rush-hour parking on a major street to allow buses to run unobstructed in the parking lane. In many of the region's busiest thoroughfares, parking during rush hour is already barred. But in other spots, including parts of Wilshire, Lincoln Boulevard in Venice and Crenshaw Boulevard through South L.A. and Inglewood, buses must weave in and out of traffic to get around parked cars.


Transit officials said last week they would like to expand the West L.A. program. But local leaders are wary.


"We are very concerned about both taking away parking for our businesses and our hotels and taking away a lane for cars to use during rush hour," said Aaron Kunz, deputy director of transportation for Beverly Hills. "Any plan that's presented to us is going to have to address these concerns adequately."


Santa Monica officials, spurred by local business leaders, are sticking by their opposition, first expressed in 2001 when the idea was introduced. At that time, they feared the loss of parking spaces would hurt local businesses and that with preferential parking for residents on side streets, there were few practical alternatives.


Local hurdles


With parking previously allowed during peak hours along the test segment of Wilshire, private vehicle commuters already had a lane taken away from them. But elsewhere on Wilshire and in other parts of the region where the MTA eventually wants to expand, setting up a bus-only lane would take away a commuter lane. And that's when transit officials expect to see major protests.


"We definitely would expect more opposition when we start on this phase," Catoe said.


Catoe said it's even been difficult to get local officials to install signal-priority software that keeps the light green as buses approach. Santa Monica has so far refused, primarily because of concern it would lengthen waits for cars at lights trying to cross Wilshire. Beverly Hills only agreed after two years of negotiations.


"It's the same old story. Initially, everyone resists projects like this," said Dana Gabbard, executive secretary of Southern California Transit Advocates. "It's only when people see the benefits that the resistance starts to break down. And right now, saving 30 seconds on a mile-long bus ride isn't enough to convince people of the benefits."


The mile-long, $160,000 test along Wilshire ran from Federal Avenue to the Santa Monica city line. MTA officials say it shaved 30 seconds off the average bus trip, to 4 minutes 30 seconds. The MTA and Los Angeles Department of Transportation have extended the program for another six months.


But local business owners say that the bus-only lanes have only made it take longer for cars to get through. (It now takes six minutes for cars, although the MTA didn't measure the program's direct impact on car travel time.)


Tarcis Verfaillie, owner of Chocolatt's from Belgium, said that many of his customers who used to come in and pick up chocolates on their way home now pass his place by. "My business is down about 20 percent," he said.


Verfaillie said that it would help if the city posted some signs pointing people to parking on adjacent side streets. Some areas, though, have restricted residential parking on side streets and won't accommodate store customers.


"Bus-only lanes are good in concept. But what's really needed to make them work are more parking lots or parking structures," said Jean Shigematsu, an official with the Westside Chamber of Commerce. "That could really make a difference."

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