Wilshire Bus-Only Lanes Move the Environmental Review Stage

6_16_10_chinese.jpgIt won’t be separated as this BRT in the PRC, but it will be nice.  Photo:我爱铰接巴士/Flickr

Sometimes I enjoy having dinner at the Wilshire/Western Denny’s for the
opportunity it affords to watch the amazing dynamic transit action
occurring at that intersection. This includes frequent and very busy
bus lines (local and Rapid) along both streets plus hoards of people
entering and exiting the rail station. It reminds me how tremendously
heavy transit use in the Wilshire corridor is. And partially
explains why a Wilshire Bus Rapid Transit Project has been in gestation
and has now reached the draft Environmental Impact Report/Environmental
Assessment
stage.

Next week Metro is holding four public hearings on the proposed Wilshire BRT project. Details on time and place are below. But
please
indulge me as I lay out some of the history behind it all. I hope you
are comfortable because it takes a fair amount of exposition to
sketch out, stretches back decades and includes a mind-boggling number
of zigs and zags to where things stand now. But trust me, I have a
purpose in laying out the highlights of how we came to this point and
the significance of the project. And yes despite the several lengthy
paragraphs of history that follow this is just the cliff notes version
of what has happened. Which is sort of a scary thought in itself.

Improving
transit service in the Wilshire corridor has been a regional goal since
at least the 1970s. Originally the hope was for it to have mass
transit. In fact the original subway alignment was to run along
Wilshire as far west as Fairfax. Then in 1985 a methane explosion
occurred in the basement of the Ross Dress for Less near the Farmer’s
Market. This provided the pretext for subway opponents in the Miracle
Mile and Hancock Park areas to champion a ban of federal funds being
used in what was dubbed the "methane zone" along Wilshire essentially
between Crenshaw and Fairfax. The subway instead was re-routed along
Vermont and Hollywood Blvd. with a stub west on Wilshire ending at
Western.

But plans started to move forward for a western
extension of the Red Line that skirted the methane zone by
being diverted south of Wilshire to Pico/San Vicente. Ironically this
effort was stymied by the discovery that it entailed tunneling through
an area saturated with hydrogen sulfate, a very lethal gas. By the late
90s the infamous Hollywood Blvd. sinkhole and other controversies led
to a cancellation of plans for subway extensions east and west.
Eventually the federal Full Funding Grant Agreement for the eastern
extension was converted to the funding of a light rail project, the
Gold Line eastern extension that opened last year.

In 2000 a
pilot Metro Rapid route (line 720) began operating along Wilshire with
hopes to eventually upgrade it to BRT as a substitute for the now
cancelled subway extension. In the same period planning began of the
Exposition light rail project. By 2004 with funds tight the Metro Board
siphoned money from the Wilshire project to keep Exposition on track.
But Wilshire BRT stayed alive as that same year a demonstration project
was commenced of peak hour bus lanes along a one mile stretch of the
Boulevard between Centinella and Federal. Metro staff concluded the
"demonstration project resulted in a 14 percent bus speed improvement
and up to a 32 percent improvement in bus schedule reliability." By
late 2006 studies were underway for bus lanes along the entire length
of Wilshire. Bowing to NIMBY pressure the L.A. City Council in August
2007 "temporarily" suspended the demonstration until the one-mile
segment could be integrated into a larger bus lane project.

Meanwhile
the feds responding to the success of Metro Rapid and similar projects
created a new category of funding to encourage BRT type projects. In
September 2007 Metro and the City of Los Angeles submitted a “very
small starts” application for Wilshire BRT which was approved. After a
slow process the project has now reached the stage of draft
environmental documents
being ready for public comment.

A statement I helped draft that Southern California Transit Advocates presented at the May 8, 2010 Special Metro Board meeting included among its bullet points:

We
hope L.A. Mayor Villaraigosa will monitor the progress of the
implementation of the Wilshire bus lanes to ensure it is done
expeditious and does not get bogged down in LADOT’s lamentable foot
dragging that had un-necessarily delayed this project for nearly half a
decade.

The
Mayor’s Office has been very supportive of the project and I am hopeful
they will assist in not allowing LADOT 1950s traffic engineering myopia
continue to stall it.

And I will note one key group of
stakeholders who have helped keep the project alive has been the Bus
Riders Union, which has long championed Wilshire BRT via letters of
support and appearances at key meetings.

The hearings will be held:

Monday, June 21, 6pm-8pm
Westwood Presbyterian Church
10822 Wilshire Bl

Tuesday, June 22, 6pm-8pm
Good Samaritan Hospital — Moseley Salvatori Conference Center
637 Lucas Ave.

Tuesday, June 29, 2pm-4pm
Wilshire United Methodist Church
4350 Wilshire Bl

Wednesday, June 30, 6pm-8pm
Felicia Mahood Center
11338 Santa Monica Bl

The
key electeds whose support is crucial to the project going forward are
L.A. city council members Paul Koretz, Bill Rosendahl, Herb Wesson, Tom
Labonge and Ed Reyes. Contact information for them is on the city
website
.

If any
of them are your councilmember and you support the project, let them
know where you stand. While a handful of vocal NIMBYs have been opposed
to the project most comments Metro has received to date have been
positive so the prospects are good if the electeds and LADOT are made
aware of the overall positive response that they will get onboard to
allow it to go forward.

The project matters for practical and
symbolic reasons. Having dedicated bus lanes will allow service to be
faster and more reliable. And by dedicating lanes during peak hours
exclusively to buses along such a prominent street our region will send
the message that transit as a priority is no longer getting only lip
service.

Metro’s 1995 Long Range Transportation Plan
included 101 miles of arterial dedicated bus lanes among its strategies
to improve mobility in the region. No map of this network was ever
released but you have to imagine it would have included Wilshire. Of
course it never happened. Here we are 15 years later finally on the
cusp of the beginnings of such a network.

Yes, it is
disappointing the initial implementation will not include the portions
of Wilshire that run through Santa Monica and Beverly Hills. But I
believe the success of the lanes will help get those two cities
eventually on board. We have to start somewhere and the current project
is closer to actually happening than any of the previous efforts. And I
say it is the right idea on the right street and needs to go forward
without delay. With a good positive turnout at the hearings that will
happen. The history I’ve laid out makes clear approval isn’t a
slamdunk. But I think it is a very hopeful situation as long as voices
of reason dominate the discussion. Let your voice be heard.

  • Dana,

    Thanks for the very thorough (yet impressively succinct!) primer on the history of mass transit along Wilshire Boulevard. Props on the call to action. Might you have any information on the City/Metro staff’s progress on producing the project work plan and implementation? I recall that the City Council made that directive back in April…

    Sirinya

  • Sirinya

    Here is the directive the city council passed

    http://clkrep.lacity.org/onlinedocs/2008/08-2595_ca_05-07-10.pdf

    I have a call in to Metro staff. Once they let me know what the status is I’ll make a follow-up comment. Thanks fo the smart question and your continued interest in the project.

    Working up the history so it wouldn’t be bogged down in minutiae yet outlined the long and winding road of Wilshire BRT over the past decade or so took a fair amount of mental energy. I felt drained riding the bus home after doing this writeup.

  • While bus-only lanes are not an adequate substitute for our needed rail projects, a network of transit-only lanes that might also someday include modern streetcars/trams on certain corridors are an important supplement to the heavy, light, commuter and high-speed rail projects.

    The hardest part of ANY transit improvement was the first one. Until the Blue Line came in, it was hard for many Los Angelenos to imagine a light-rail line. Until the Red Line came in, the concept of a heavy-rail subway was theoreticaly. The Orange Line has shown us the possibilities and limits of BRT as a substitute for LRT.

    If this goes through and people adapt, hopefully the idea of transit-only lanes may be politically possible elsewhere. But know that as soon as this project goes online, the political firestorm to repeal these bus-only lanes will be intense. The prior bus only lanes on Wilshire through West L.A. lasted about 30 seconds before entitled motorists started screaming about their loss of those lanes during rush hour and successfully lobbied to have them repealed. Once these transit only lanes go online, their advocates will have to not only fight to get them, but fight to keep them.

    I am hoping Broadway Streetcar project will lead to more trams elsewhere across the county. Ventura Blvd., Venice Blvd., and Sunset Blvd. between downtown and Sunset Junction with branches towards the Sunset Strip and to Santa Monica Blvd., would be my first choices for additional modern streetcars.

  • Matt

    I live by the demonstration area of Wilshire that had the bus lanes for a year or so. The biggest complaint was by businesses who lost street parking. This was somewhat valid since the lanes were previously used solely for parking.

    A lot of motorists complained because they weren’t allowed to drive in these lanes, but they never could previously so this was completely erroneous. Traffic was better with the bus lanes, because the busses were now out of the regular lanes and cars were not constantly stopping in the regular lanes trying to parallel park. Of course, when the lanes went away they opened them up to traffic during rush hours trying to appease everyone.

    Lets hope the entire Wilshire BRT goes better than this.

  • Thanks for the very informative write up there Dana (I echo Sirinya).

    Regarding the trolley streetcars idea: I think another important route should be right down the existing ROW along Santa Monica Blvd. through Beverly Hills. The strip of fenced off ROW would connect from West Hollywood through Beverly Hills to Century City (and beyond) along Santa Monica Blvd. and allow West Hollywood to be connected to the future Century City subway station without having to wait for the proposed Pink Line.

    Do people know what I’m talking about here? It’s the strip of land, filled with weeds/grass, and fenced off. It goes right through where Eli Broad wanted to build his contentious museum.

  • It’s a good idea, Brigham. Run the modern streetcar from Century City to Beverly Hills, to West Hollywood, then continue on Santa Monica Blvd. to Sunset Junction, then down Sunset to Union Station.

  • Sirinya,

    Just heard back from Martha Butler of Metro about the status of the project work plan and implementation (understandably they have been preoccupied with preparing for the public hearings).

    Butler directed me to Kang Hu of LADOT, who is overseeing the drafting of the plan. Hu says it will be ready in a few months. And that is where things stand.

  • @Dana–Thanks!

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