As a candidate, Antonio Villaraigosa tantalized commuters with the dream of building a subway along Wilshire Boulevard to the ocean.
Some dream. Under the best political and economic circumstances, it would take billions of dollars and a decade or more to make it happen.
So what do traffic-weary Angelenos do in the meantime? Depend on a lot of smaller initiatives, such as dedicated bus lanes, synchronized traffic lights, added turn signals and rush-hour parking bans.
"All of the easy things, the low-hanging fruit, have already been done or are being done," said Bob Poole, director of transportation studies at the Reason Foundation.
Villaraigosa hasn't said what his game plan is, so traffic planners are sticking with the incremental stuff, such as putting officers at key intersections like Westwood and Sepulveda boulevards and repairing bumpy curb lanes steps that are barely making an imprint.
Wilshire, the city's main business artery, is trampled by more than 100,000 vehicles per day along certain stretches, a volume more akin to a freeway than a surface street. Already, major stretches are virtually impassable at rush hour and even at times outside of traditional rush hour.
"You can only squeeze so much extra capacity out of our existing streets," said L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a board member of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
It's not just the traffic, it's the politics or more specifically, the inability of local municipalities to agree on anything.
Consider a $100,000 pilot program last year for a bus-only lane along Wilshire, from the Santa Monica city line to Federal Avenue. L.A. traffic planners concluded that the test went well, shaving a few minutes off travel times, so the City Council approved making the bus-only lane permanent. "This is an extremely cost-effective way to improve bus service," said David Mieger, director of Westside planning for the MTA.
But on the other side, Santa Monica city officials oppose having the lane go through their city. "We really don't think we need it," said Kate Vernez, government relations assistant to the city manager. "We're the end of the line on Wilshire and typically traffic moves pretty well, even during rush hour. Besides, our businesses have let us know they don't want the street parking taken away."
Consider, too, MTA's popular Rapid Bus program, where the trademark red-and-white buses zip along Wilshire with fewer stops. The buses proved so popular that service is now being expanded to dozens of other major streets throughout L.A.
But an accompanying effort to give these buses signal prioritization (turning red signals to green early or delaying the onset of a red signal) has been slow to take hold. Beverly Hills officials waited to see how effective the program would be in L.A. before signing an agreement with the MTA earlier this year to install the computers needed for signal prioritization.
"This is a very common phenomenon when one arterial or highway passes through several jurisdictions," said Michael Meyer, a principal in the transportation consulting firm of Meyer Mohaddes Associates. "Each one wants to exert control over their segment."
Things were so bad in the 1980s that officials of cities along Wilshire rarely talked to each other. Most notably, Beverly Hills strenuously opposed any attempt to put a subway under Wilshire or a freeway along its portion of Santa Monica Boulevard. In recent years, relations among the cities have improved somewhat.
But by now, solving the congestion along Wilshire requires more than good will. The intersection with Santa Monica Boulevard on the western edge of Beverly Hills is one of the most complicated in the nation, with two sets of traffic signals on Wilshire and left turn signals in every direction. During rush hour, eastbound traffic often backs up for a mile or more.
Among the ideas being tossed around is a grade separating the two streets, essentially putting Wilshire over or under Santa Monica Boulevard. But Beverly Hills deputy transportation director Aaron Kunz said any decision is years away.
For good reason grade separation is expensive. It costs tens of millions of dollars per intersection and requires a system of ramps for those wanting to make turns from one street to the other, essentially turning it into an unsightly freeway-interchange.
"It just isn't very practical except in the absolute worst-case situations," said Meyer.
Meanwhile, traffic tie-ups are getting so bad that the traditional tools to speed cars along are losing effectiveness or creating other problems.
James Okazaki, assistant general manager for the Los Angeles city Department of Transportation, said that starting in late 2006 or early 2007, the green cycle on traffic lights along Wilshire Boulevard will be lengthened similar to what's been done along Olympic Boulevard during rush hour. But lengthening the green cycle means more backups along key north-south streets like Sepulveda Boulevard and La Brea Avenue.
The biggest improvement would come from building a subway and, indeed, plans for a line extending to the ocean have been on the books for nearly four decades. But only four miles of subway was built, from downtown to Western Avenue.
Within months of the 1985 methane gas explosion at the Ross Dress for Less store on Third Street, across from Farmer's Market, Congress banned any further federal funds for subway construction on Wilshire west of the planned terminus at Western Avenue. That ban is still in effect.
In 1998, following a street cave-in during subway construction on Hollywood Boulevard and cost overruns, Yaroslavsky convinced voters to pass a ban on local sales tax funding of subway construction. While that freed up funds for light rail projects to Pasadena, the Eastside, the San Fernando Valley busway now nearing completion and the planned Exposition light rail line, it pretty much sunk plans for the Wilshire Boulevard extension.
But as the region's congestion worsens, opposition to building a subway under Wilshire has begun to soften. Last year, the MTA board passed a motion by L.A. Councilman Tom LaBonge to study the feasibility of a 3-mile extension to Fairfax Avenue.
And Yaroslavsky now says he supports extending the subway, at least through Westwood. But he still doesn't want a local sales tax to be used to fund it, meaning the lion's share of money would have to come from the federal and state governments. Earlier this month, Villaraigosa said he hoped to convince Yaroslavsky that the county must have the option of spending its own money on transit projects.
Next stop 2010
Still, it would take at least 10 years to reverse the construction bans, line up the funding and resolve the methane and other environmental issues. Even once ground is broken, construction would only progress at about one mile per year, creating years of havoc along the most densely packed business corridor in the region.
That's why building the subway remains a low priority for traffic planners. "Frankly, it's so far off that we're not really looking at it," Kunz said.
For now, the only likely rail construction on the Westside is the Exposition light rail line. The first phase, from downtown around the University of Southern California and west along Exposition Boulevard to Culver City, is slated to break ground next year and be completed in 2010.
The second phase, out to Santa Monica, has yet to be funded.
But the Expo line will do little to relieve traffic on Wilshire. "If you must use Wilshire during rush hour, there will be delays," said Steve Finnegan, director of transportation policy for the Automobile Club of Southern California. "There's simply no magic bullet here."
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