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Summer of '06 Could Prove Rough Ride Downtown

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

September 10 -- If driving around the Downtown this summer seems tough, just wait a few years. Summer of 2006 will be no easy ride, as crews work on three major construction projects likely to cause traffic delays through swathes of the Downtown.

In the fall of 2005, the City will begin to buttress two bridges at the edge of Downtown – the California Incline just north of Wilshire Boulevard and the Pier Bridge – strengthening the structures against temblors and widening them to accommodate more car and foot traffic.

In addition, eight city blocks ringing the Third Street Promenade will come under construction soon after the 2006 New Year, as work crews transform, improve and expand the sidewalks along 2nd and 4th streets between Wilshire Boulevard and Colorado Avenue. The result will be a more pedestrian-friendly environment City officials hope will lure pedestrians to the streets flanking the Promenade.

While few may question the need to shore up bridges or ensure that economic vitality flows outward from the booming Third Street commercial strip, some Bayside merchants and officials worry about the timing of the multi-million dollar construction projects.

“We are very concerned about the timing of these projects and will monitor them closely,” said Kathleen Rawson, executive director of Bayside District Corporation. “City projects take a very long time to plan, design and execute, so at this date we still see these as tentative timetables.

“If, however, the City is truly trying to do these projects at the same time, we will need to sit with them and understand their rationale,” Rawson said. “The last thing we want to do is choke the vehicular access to Downtown any more than is absolutely necessary to get this work done.”

However, the simultaneous construction schedule is no accident, say City engineers overseeing the projects.

“By overlapping, the overall project time will be reduced,” said Civil Engineer Jim Creager. “Through this effort it is thought that (the projects) will have a reduced impact to the public. Impacts will be managed and coordinated. However impacts will exist.”

City engineers expect “minimal to moderate” impacts on traffic. However, they did not specify what that would mean for the many motorists who use those routes daily.

“Traffic will be controlled by a traffic control plan submitted by the contractor to minimize impact to Santa Monicans,” said Ruth Firestone, who supervises the City’s Civil Engineering and Architecture Division.

As far as the effect on merchants, Firestone said “efforts will be made to reduce any impact to tourism.” The Pier Bridge at Colorado Avenue, for example, will remain open to traffic during construction, Firestone said.

However, one unavoidable impact sure to frustrate drivers will be the closure and rerouting of traffic from the California Incline during its construction.

Firestone said she expects it will remain closed for the duration of the project, which will be completed in the fourth quarter of 2006.

While the two bridge projects could slow down traffic, the makeover of the streets Downtown will not create a serious impact, said Firestone.

The $2.3 million dollar project along Second and Fourth streets will not result in any “significant impediment to access to the business,” since the improvements “are not slated to change the curb-line or alter the traffic lanes,” Firestone said.

The improvements include replanting trees, improving pedestrian lighting, enhancing crosswalks and possibly treating the pavement to add aesthetic appeal.
As a precaution and convenience to merchants, City engineers said they plan to provide public outreach to businesses affected during construction.

The streetscape improvements are the third phase in Downtown’s Urban Design Plan, which included the Transit Mall and which is slated to improve traffic circulation, upgrade the pedestrian quality of streets, improve transit facilities and build better linkages to adjoining destinations, such as the Civic Center, Palisades Park and the pier.

In addition to moving foot traffic beyond Third Street, the upgrades have the added role of “improving the transit experience for the patrons of the many transit lines that run through Downtown,” Firestone said.

While the Second and Fourth street project will be funded by public grants, the taxpayers will have to partially bankroll the seismic retrofitting and improvements of the two bridges.

The California incline is expected to ring in at $5.4 million, with local taxpayers left to pick up $1.1 million of the tab after the federally funded Highway Bridge Replacement and Rehabilitation Program (HBRRP) bankrolls most of the project cost with a $4.3 million contribution.

HBRRP will also shell out $1.4 million for the pier bridge, leaving $400,000 that the City must kick in to complete the $1.8 million project.

While City engineers admit the two bridges remain vulnerable to seismic activity during construction, Firestone said they are following all guidelines necessary to support the structure while the work, which will last a year, is underway.

If all goes on schedule, visitors and merchants can expect to have their roads and walkways back to normal after 2006.

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