Saturday, April 28, 2001

Putting Westside on Rails

Take one look at the daily crush on the Santa Monica Freeway--or the major east-west surface streets--and there can be little doubt about the need for mass transit on the Westside. Yet other than a few freeway commuter buses, there's nothing. For years, the most thoughtful plan to ease traffic congestion has been held hostage to the self-fulfilling myth that Westsiders will never give up their cars. Now, a new report on the proposed Exposition light rail line should quickly put that misconception to rest and finally get this key transit project out of neutral.

The Exposition line would carry riders between Santa Monica and downtown in about 45 minutes; from there they could easily transfer to other lines--to Long Beach, the San Fernando Valley and, eventually, Pasadena and East Los Angeles. The 17.3-mile route, running largely along Exposition Boulevard near the Santa Monica Freeway, has long been a part of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's planning because it would be relatively easy and low-cost to build. The MTA already holds title to the right of way, an old railroad line, and could tap federal and state funds already committed to the Westside.

The agency's environmental impact report, released this month, projects Exposition line ridership comparable to that of the Blue Line and more than the Green Line's. That's because the Westside has the highest population, 1.5 million, and employment density of any Southern California area. Moreover, while the next 20 years will surely see significant growth in both population and jobs in an already nearly gridlocked area, no significant expansion of existing freeway and street networks is planned.

Residents along the Blue Line to Pasadena, now under construction, and the proposed Eastside extension have lobbied hard for those two transit alternatives. Meanwhile, the loudest Westside voices the MTA heard for years were those of Cheviot Hills and Rancho Park homeowners vehemently opposed to the prospect of trains running by their neighborhoods. A rerouted Exposition line now avoids those areas, dipping south to include parts of Culver City. The line, which was frozen in planning limbo for years, has started to attract the grass-roots support it has long deserved.

But the line still faces high political hurdles on the MTA board, starting with Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, the board's current chairwoman. Burke, a county supervisor, has long resisted this line, although in running through her district it would ease the commuting nightmares of many of her constituents. Burke has tied progress on the Exposition line to approval of a dedicated busway along Wilshire Boulevard for the Metro Rapid bus already running there. But the busway is likely to take up a lane on one of the city's busiest streets while yielding little improvement in the Rapid bus' travel time. The Exposition line, potentially serving many more riders, would be faster and less disruptive. Exposition merits approval without linkage to the Wilshire bus.

The MTA will hold a series of public hearings on the Exposition line report beginning May 7. Come July, after Burke rotates off as board chair, the MTA could take action, at long last green-lighting this worthy project.

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

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