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Clang, Clang, Clang Goes the Trolley

by Frank Gruber

The old movie serials used to end each week's episode with a "cliffhanger" -- something to make sure the kids would have something to talk about during the week and bring them back next Saturday.

The cliffhanger in my column last week about the plans of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to build a mass transit system for the Westside is whether the MTA will build one good enough to make a difference.

To begin with, the MTA is considering systems that are pale shadows of the heavy rail underground system originally planned back in 1983 to connect downtown L.A. and the Westside, with dreams for a future connection to Santa Monica.

Metro Rail would have really moved people, but those plans went up in smoke, or, rather, up in methane, when naturally occurring gas fueled a fire at a Fairfax district clothing store in 1985. This gave opponents who feared that Metro Rail would bring growth to their neighborhoods a perfect excuse to block the plan.

Then, in 1998, voters passed Zev Yaroslavsky's Prop. A, which prohibits funding subway projects with sales tax revenues that Prop. C marked for transit in 1990. Prop. A passed in the context of large cost overruns for the Red Line subway, and because of the perception that the MTA was spending money on fixed rail projects that could be better spent on buses.

Eighteen years have now gone by, and the Westside still has no mass transit system, even though we have higher population and job densities, and the highest percentage usage of transit, than any other area in Los Angeles County.

The MTA is focussing on systems that, though modest in comparison to heavy rail, would still move a fair number of riders, and which have the distinct advantage of being buildable. These systems also would not preclude the building of a future heavy rail system in time for the twin centennials of the destruction of the Pacific Electric Railway and the construction of the Santa Monica Freeway.

The priority for the MTA is the Wilshire corridor, and the MTA has designated as its first alternative a "bus rapid transit" (BRT) system that would consist of exclusive bus lanes running on Wilshire from downtown Santa Monica to the Red Line stop at Western Avenue.

The Wilshire BRT is not terribly exciting, but it will do a good part of the job if the MTA builds it in a manner that gives priority to the needs of transit users. As I wrote last week, the Wilshire BRT (but also parts of the Exposition line) is particularly in danger of being watered down to preserve left turn lanes and to give private vehicles two lanes of traffic in each direction.

This would also cause the loss of on street parking, a particular problem in Santa Monica where Wilshire retains some charm as a walking and shopping street in part because of the parking.

The solution is to give up on the left turn lanes and the two lanes for private cars in each direction, and keep the parking. This seems impossible, given all the cars that now clog Wilshire, but traffic will adjust to the changed conditions and more people will use the system and leave their cars at home.

The MTA's most dramatic decisions will be whether to run a system (mostly) along the old Southern Pacific right of way along Exposition Boulevard, and, if so, whether that system should be a BRT system or a light rail transit (LRT) system.

Beyond the fundamental difference between buses and electric trams, the two systems are similar. In either, the buses or trams would travel mostly in dedicated lanes, and there would be grade separations at the busiest intersections.

Both buses and trams would travel in mixed traffic from Seventh and Flower in downtown L.A. to USC and Exposition Park, then west in exclusive guideways along the Exposition right of way to Venice Boulevard.

The buses or trams would then travel in guideways on Venice to Sepulveda, north on Sepulveda to rejoin the Exposition right of way and take it to Olympic near Cloverfield.

The MTA decided on the Venice/Sepulveda route instead of the more direct route along the right of way through Cheviot Hills in the face of homeowner opposition. This decision may have been based on the wrong reasons, but the detour makes sense from a transportation perspective because it brings the route closer to large populations in Venice, Culver City, and Westchester.

From a Santa Monica perspective, this route has the potential of drawing off significant traffic from Lincoln Boulevard.

Once in Santa Monica, buses would switch over to Colorado and ultimately join the downtown transit mall now under construction. Trams, however, would continue down Olympic, and then a bridge would fly them over the freeway, to land in a station in the Civic Center.

The MTA also must decide whether to take the system underground near USC and Exposition Park. While a tunnel would cost more money, it would allow the system to be used effectively on some of the busiest days of the year, such as the L.A. Marathon, when the streets in the area are closed.

The LRT system is superior. Electric trams provide aesthetic benefits and comforts that buses lack. One can read on a tram -- most people cannot do so on a bus.

Light rail will also carry more riders. The Long Beach line now carries 60,000 passengers daily, so many that the MTA is enlarging station platforms to accommodate longer trains. I doubt that a BRT operating along the same route would have been so successful.

For Santa Monica, the LRT also provides a great opportunity to bring to the Civic Center a use, the line's western terminus, that will serve the Pier and the existing mix of residences, hotels, and offices as well as the parks and housing now being planned. The station will help balance a downtown that is now heavily weighted toward the Promenade.

As for us Santa Monicans, once both the Wilshire and Exposition projects are built, we will have two alternatives to the freeway for our trips to downtown L.A. and many points north, east and south.

Ring, Ring, Ring Goes the Bell.

Meeting Reminder: Speaking of the Civic Center, the next meeting of the Civic Center Working Group will take place at 7:30 next Thursday evening, May 10, at the DoubleTree Hotel, 1707 Fourth Street. The topic for discussion will be the crucial issue of housing. For further information, contact Andy Agle at (310) 458-2275.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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