Developer Jim Thomas was tired of sitting in gridlock while commuting from his home in Brentwood to various parts of Los Angeles.
So more than a year ago he put up $100,000 of his own money to help fund a Rand Corp. study on something no one else is apparently pushing: inexpensive, short-term solutions to L.A.'s world-famous traffic congestion.
The result? A new and vocal non-profit. And its mission is taking on new urgency in the wake of a separate report concluding that the much-anticipated "Subway to the Sea" likely won't be finished for decades.
"It's going to be a long wait," Thomas said of the subway.
"Somebody needs to do something and nobody else is focused on pushing for interim solutions. Unless we take major steps, it's going to get worse."
The Rand report being promoted by the non-profit Fast which stands for Fixing Angelenos Stuck in Traffic suggests that measures such as synchronizing traffic signals in adjoining cities, building high-occupancy toll lanes on county freeways and creating a region-wide network of bicycle lanes could reduce congestion within just a few years.
That's a big difference compared to a Jan. 12 timeline issued by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which stated that a proposed subway to Santa Monica likely won't even reach Westwood until 2032.
The discussion also comes amidst continued debate over a plan by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to speed traffic on the congested Westside by reconfiguring two normally clogged thoroughfares Olympic and Pico boulevards into largely one-way streets. The plan, dubbed Olympic-West Pico-East, was put on hold last year by a judge who ruled that more study was needed.
At least one critic, however, has questioned the motives, suggesting that FAST is a publicity stunt aimed at helping Thomas with a controversial project, his company's proposed $800 million studio and office development in Universal City. Thomas is chairman and chief executive of Thomas Properties Group Inc.
"I would think that some really good public relations consultant got hold of him," said Anastasia Mann, president of the Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council, which has expressed major concerns regarding the traffic implications of the company's plan to put studios and offices atop the Universal City subway stop.
Thomas, however, is undaunted by the criticism, arguing aggressively in conversations with community leaders and on FAST's Web site (www.fastla.org) for a host of anti-congestion measures.
"The fact is that we're not helpless," he said. "We don't have to just sit here and let this continue."
The FAST recommendations originate from the $300,000 Rand study released late last year and paid for by the MTA, the Music Center of Los Angeles County and Rand itself, in addition to Thomas. (Rand is located in Santa Monica.)
Compared to 14 other major urban areas, it concludes Los Angeles ranks fifth in per capita driving miles behind Seattle, Atlanta, San Francisco and Dallas. Yet the area leads the nation in total annual hours of traffic delay per peak-time traveler (72), gallons of fuel wasted each year per car (57) and annual economic cost (about $9 billion) associated with traffic congestion.
That kind of gridlock is what prompted county voters last November to approve Measure R, an initiative expected to raise $40 billion in state sales tax revenues for transportation improvements over the next 30 years. One of the measure's most significant recipients is the proposed 10-mile "Subway to the Sea" from the Red Line's current terminus at Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue. Not only will it not reach Westwood for more than 20 years, but the MTA's timetable doesn't indicate when it will reach Santa Monica.
"What we're trying to say," said FAST executive director Hilary Norton, "is that you can start making changes (now) to pave the way."
The nonprofit agency is governed by a 19-member board of directors that includes some heavy hitters, such as former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, retiring MTA head Roger Snoble and UCLA Chancellor Gene Block.
Over the next several months, Norton said, FAST will be implementing a series of meetings with various educational, civic and political groups to further its agenda. The group has a budget of about $400,000 a year contributed mostly by its own board members, as well as the MTA.
The agenda also calls for more peak-hour curbside parking restrictions, ridesharing and dedicated bus-only lanes. The cost has not been calculated, though it would be "in the millions," Norton said, adding that funding would come from the private sector as well as federal, local and state sources including Measure R.
Robert Carpenter, executive director of Building L.A.'s Future: Ending Gridlock in Los Angeles, another nonprofit aimed at thinning the region's congestion, expressed support for Thomas' efforts.
"He's putting his money where his mouth is," Carpenter said. "He's very smart and dedicated, and I know they'll be successful."
Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to FAST's agenda may be association with its founder, Thomas. His Thomas Properties Group was chosen by NBC Universal to develop its new studio and office complex across from Universal Studios.
The studios will serve as home to KNBC-TV and other NBC Universal West Coast broadcast operations, following their departure from Burbank. The studio and office development is expected to draw an additional 1,900 car trips per day, according to Thomas, in an area already busy from the visitors and workers at the studios and Universal City Walk.
Thomas, who has said he intends to pump an extra $35 million into the Universal City project to help mitigate traffic concerns, calls the development "representative of the long-term future of Los Angeles" and "separate and apart" from the actions of FAST. "We need to do be doing some smart things right now," he said.
But the Universal project has drawn vociferous criticism, including some from Roy P. Disney, the billionaire nephew of Walt Disney, who lives nearby in Toluca Lake and is chairman of the NBC Universal/MTA Project Community Working Group, which is seeking to reduce the project size. He claims the project, when additional phases are included, would draw 10,000 cars to nearby streets and freeways.
Mann said she would be surprised if any of the recommendations from FAST would help much in reducing traffic congestion generated by the NBC project.
"It would be miraculous if a major developer suddenly came up with a solution that would make the Universal project, or any other project, feasible in that it wouldn't impact traffic," Mann said. "Not parking a car on the street isn't going to solve the problem; we are an automotive city and we need to face the reality of who and what we are. There isn't a short-term solution to traffic if there was, why aren't we using it now?"
But at least one other critic, L.A. City Councilman Tom LaBonge, is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
"I welcome anyone who has a heart and mind to look at traffic issues, notwithstanding what he has before the Council," said LaBonge, who represents Toluca Lake and is an outspoken opponent of the Thomas project. "Big things need to be done."
Here are some quick and inexpensive ways to relieve traffic in Los Angeles, according to Fixing Angelenos Stuck in Traffic:
- Improve signal timing by synchronizing traffic lights in adjoining cities
- Increase peak-hour curbside parking restrictions along congested thoroughfares
- Create a network of paired one-way streets
- Encourage ridesharing, telecommuting and flexible work schedules
- Develop a network of high-occupancy toll lanes on area freeways
- Implement variable curbside parking rates based on time of day and congestion
- Encourage companies to offer employees cash instead of paid parking as an incentive for commuting alternatives
- Develop and market deep annual bus pass discounts for employers in well-served transit areas
- Increase the number of dedicated bus-only lanes in urban areas
- Develop an integrated region-wide network of bicycle lanes
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