Lawsuit says NBCUniversal, Caltrans broke law in offramp closure

Residents allege NBCUniversal, Caltrans inadequately studied impact of plan to close 101 Freeway offramp

NBCUniversal and Caltrans broke state law by inadequately studying the environmental effect of a plan to close a major 101 Freeway offramp, according to a new lawsuit filed by residents.

The southbound Barham Boulevard exit ramp is set to permanently close, probably in the coming year, as part of NBCUniversal's $1.6-billion Evolution plan to expand its Universal Studios theme park.

The planned offramp closure has infuriated neighbors who say the area is already gridlocked and that closing the busy exit will only make it worse. A group of residents calling itself Keep the Barham Ramp Assn. filed suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court on New Year's Eve.

The lawsuit, which seeks to halt the Barham closure until further study is done, names Universal City Studios and the California Department of Transportation, as well as the city and county of Los Angeles — both of which approved the plan.

As part of NBCUniversal's expansion plan, a new southbound 101 Freeway onramp is to be built on Universal Studios Boulevard, allowing departing park guests to get directly onto the freeway, bypassing the neighborhood.

In an emailed statement, NBCUniversal said: "The new southbound 101 onramp was fully vetted in the public through a seven-year environmental review process. We are confident that the courts will stand by the city, county and Caltrans approvals."

Caltrans determined last year that the Barham offramp had to close because it would be too close to the new onramp. Vehicles accelerating from the onramp and those decelerating to make the Barham exit would create a dangerous stretch of "weaving and merging," according to an addendum to the project's environmental impact report written by Caltrans.

Lauren Wonder, a Caltrans spokeswoman, said the department does not comment on pending litigation. Multiple Caltrans spokespersons referred questions about the project and offramp closure to the developers.

Hollywood Hills resident John Strozdas, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said Caltrans violated the California Environmental Quality Act by not providing substantial proof it had studied alternatives to the closure and by not sufficiently backing up its findings regarding the closure's effects.

According to the Caltrans addendum, the project "will have a less than significant impact on public services," including fire and police service, schools and parks. But the lawsuit alleges Caltrans did not prove that point.

"It is the experience of many persons who ... use the Barham (southbound) offramp that police and fire services regularly use the ... offramp to provide public services to that area and that without it, they will have to exit approximately one mile north ... increasing response time," the lawsuit states.

With the Barham offramp closed, southbound drivers trying to get off the Hollywood Freeway will have to exit north of Barham at Lankershim Boulevard or drive two miles south to the next offramp at Highland Avenue, a major artery for the Hollywood Bowl that backs up during concerts.

The lawsuit alleges that the developers stifled public comment and misled the public by calling the offramp the "Bennett Drive" exit — though the highway sign on the freeway labels the exit as "Barham Blvd."

NBCUniversal executives say the planned freeway changes will relieve congestion and help the neighborhood because theme park guests will be able to enter and exit the freeway without clogging local streets.

The plan includes the building of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction, which will feature a replica of the Hogwarts Castle and is expected to draw throngs of new visitors.

hailey.branson@latimes.com

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