Behind the Politics of Yestedays Split Decision on Bus Only Lanes

A bus trapped in traffic. Photo: Total Traffic L.A.

(Thanks to Sunyoung Yang at the Bus Riders Union, Bart Reed with the Transit Coalition, and Ray Klein with the Brentwood Community Council for help researching this article.  Also, The Source had a review of the meeting up yesterday for more background.)

If City Councilman Bill Rosendahl is hoping to keep the Wilshire Bus-Only Lanes from coming to the Westside through a City Council vote, he has his work cut out for him.  While both the City Council and Metro Board of Directors need to agree on the final route for the project, yesterday’s City Council Transportation Committee suggests that the debate may be on whether to fight Metro on whether or not to have MORE Bus-Only Lanes than the Metro Board suggested, not less.

The five member Committee split its vote for each of the three alternatives proposed by staff.  Alternative A calls for 8.7 miles of bus only lanes including segments in the Westwood “Condo Canyon” and Brentwood and was supported by Richard Alarcon and Bernard Parks.  Option A-1 calls for 7.7 miles of BOL’s and removes the “Condo Canyon” area and was supported by Paul Koretz and Tom LaBonge.  The last option removes the Westside completely, calls for 5.4 miles of BOL’s, and was only supported by Rosendahl.

The full City Council is expected to vote on the matter next week.

There was some interesting politics in the committee votes.  First, the Bus Riders Union, which has led the charge for the 8.7 mile route, called for the 7.7 mile route in their testimony yesterday.  Application for federal funding agreement is due by June 15th and Federal Transit Administration needs to finalize everything by Sept. 15th.  Staff claims they can re-negotiate with FTA about pushing application till mid-July. This delay risks on meeting Sept. 15th deadline for FTA.  If FTA misses their deadline, the entire project could be lost.

If the Council selects the full 8.7 mile route, which would be something of an upset, the Metro Board would have to vote again at their June Board meeting to accept that route.  Someone would have to make a stand against Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky who fought for the “Condo Canyon” removal.  Mayor Villaraigosa and his allies or Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas are two obvious candidates to take up that battle because of their support for BOL’s in their district.

“If the City Council is willing to stake it out for the full 8.7 mile implementation next week then the Mayor needs to step up his leadership inside the MTA Board to ensure consensus with City Council inside the board to get this project moving forward,” writes Sunyoung Yang of the Bus Riders Union.

A second interesting political maneuver was the Westside dis-unity over the Bus-Only Lanes.  At the May Metro Board meeting, there were reports that Yaroslavsky was urging Condo Canyon residents to support Alternative A-1 to head off arguments that the Westside was ant-transit.  There’s also a lot higher chance that the City Council would pass a 7.7. mile route if Metro already passed that route, and it saves the part of the route he carved out.

We saw that strategy continued yesterday.  While Koretz had called for a Westside exemption in the past, he voted for the 7.7 mile route yesterday.  Koretz represents the Condo Canyon area, but no part of Brentwood.

LaBonge, who represents a portion of the area in the 5.4 mile area, seemed to be in favor of whatever project was most likely to be approved by the Metro Board.  “If you want to see the moon, I’ll take you to the Griffith Observatory.  If you want to see what the surface of the moon looks like, I’ll take you to Wilshire Boulevard,” LaBonge said of the potholes on the iconic street.  Every portion of Wilshire that undergoes the BOL treatment will be repaved.

Third, Parks made an equity argument for as many bus only lanes as possible.  Many residents of his South L.A. district commute to points west and would benefit from a bus only lane.  Because of higher real estate prices on the Westside residents don’t have the option of living closer to where they work or driving there.  Thus, the BOL provides them with the opportunity to get to work more efficiently.

Last, the meeting marked the debut of Jaime De La Vega as head of LADOT.  He made the presentation on the Bus Only Lanes and fielded questions from the Council.

Brentwood residents highlighted not just traffic concerns in their area, but also concerns for pedestrians waiting for the bus.  To relieve impacts to the mixed-use traffic in Brentwood, the Bus Only Lane project calls for narrowing sidewalks in Brentwood on Wilshire Boulevard between Barrington and Bonsall from 12 feet to 8 feet.

However, the general plan for the area calls for twelve foot sidewalks.  In some areas, bus benches would be only two to three feet between the bench and the buildings.  Also, over 60 students from University High wait for a bus every afternoon, and the current sidewalk is inadequate and causes them to spill over into the street and the 7-Eleven driveway and parking lot.

Senior Transportation Engineer Kang Hu responded that the project is ADA compliant, including the areas around the bus shelters.   Hu also noted the poor condition of the sidewalks in the area and claimed that the pedestrian environment could be improved, even with the more narrow sidewalks.

But Rosendahl hammered away at the impact to drivers traveling between the Santa Monica border and the 405.  “I’m told you can walk faster than ride a bus or drive a car,” Rosendahl said of the area.  Hu responded that “…we are adding a travel lane in this area to make it work.”

Rosendahl also hit one of his favorite arguments that the absence of Beverly Hills and Santa Monica makes the project moot.  Staff noted that it was actually the City and Metro that moved on the grant without inviting Beverly Hills or Santa Monica because of the short deadline to get the grant.  The never understated Alarcon wondered outloud whether or note federal officials would “think we’re coo-coo” if they back away from the 8.7 mile route now.

As soon as the Council decides when to schedule the full vote and hearing on the route, we’ll let you know.g