A "Busline to the sea"--at least within three miles of it--has moved closer to reality with approval of the Los Angeles City Council.
The Council voted 11-1 in favor of a 7.7 mile route on Wilshire Blvd between MacArthur Park and the Santa Monica border. Existing lanes alongside the curb would be transformed into bus-only lanes during morning and evening rush hours. The busline would not be continuous. Along at least two stretches, buses would use ordinary traffic lanes, which the council majority indicates it still hopes can be changed.
Completion target is 2013. When ready, the bus lane is expected to speed bus travel times by a minute or more per mile. For autos losing access to the curb lane during rush hour, travel time is expected to increase by approximately a minute per mile.
The route had been designated last month by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the lead agency on the project. Additional required approval from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is also expected, as all five Supervisors have already voted in favor in their capacity as members of the Metro Board.
Funding for the $31 million project is relying on $23 million in federal money. Metro representatives told LA City officials the plan needs to be finalized by mid-July to assure the federal funding.
The major gap in the busline occurs on the stretch of Wilshire Blvd through the city of Beverly Hills, which opted out of the project. At its west end, Santa Monica is also not participating. In addition, there is a gap of approximately one mile in the so-called "condo canyon" of residential highrises just east of Westwood. Its exclusion, sought by community groups, was justified on the grounds that this is already the smoothest flowing stretch of Blvd without creating a special bus lane.
A majority of council members favored having the busline go through the "condo canyon," but hesitated to designate it their choice for fear this could delay final approve and jeopardize federal funding. In the end, the council chose to express its preference for the longer 8.7 mile route and ask the Metro Board to consider adopting it. If it won't, the motion was worded so that the council's acceptance of the shorter 7.7 mile alternative will allow the project to proceed.
Among the proponents for the busline are the Bus Riders Union and advocates for veterans, many of whom rely on bus transporation to the Veterans Administration facilities on Wilshire just west of the 405 Freeway. Currently, during rush hour, the ride from downtown ''can take three times as long as when you travel in the middle of the day," said Crystal McMillan, who for years rode with her father to the VA Hospital. Also a veteran, McMillan said she takes the bus to see her doctor in nearby Westwood.
When buses run late, forcing veterans to miss VA doctor appointments, "sometimes they cannot reschedule for two or three weeks," said attorney Serena Lin, an attorney at the Public Counsel Law Center, which advocates for veterans.
During the public hearing prior to the council vote, representatives of community groups west of the 405, in the south end of Brentwood, had requested their section of Wilshire be excluded, citing a short-lived 2006 experiment with a bus lane that sent backed up traffic into residential neighborhoods.
"Since it failed before, I cannot imagine how it could be any better this time," said Marylin Krell, President, So. Brentwood Residents Association. The councilman for this area, Bill Rosendahl, suggested that, rather than allowing some gaps but not others, the council should approve only the continuous section from MacArthur Park to the Beverly Hills border. That was rejected.
But other council members did agree a patchwork busline is less than optimum, and even likely to expose those who approve it to ridicule. "This discussion reminds me of the green line," said Councilman Richard Alarcon, recalling that after much debate, that light rail line was terminated barely a mile from LA International Airport, which to this day lacks rail transit access.
Of the Wilshire busline, Alarcon cautioned: "Let's not create a rapid bus to nowhere."