For many drivers, there is a special kind of aggravation associated with the traffic congestion that chronically afflicts the stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard between Beverly Hills and the San Diego Freeway.
What makes traffic jams there all the more frustrating for the 98,000 people who travel the route every day is a strip of weedy land that splits the corridor into what residents call big and little Santa Monica boulevards. The land, wasted on billboards and the abandoned railroad tracks on which Red Car trolleys once ran, is plenty wide for extra traffic lanes--but until recently it was tied up by a battle between local government and its owner, Southern Pacific Transportation Co.
The dispute ended last week when a consortium of local and state organizations agreed to purchase the 2.2-mile right of way from Southern Pacific for $27.5 million--paving the way for officials to transform one of the country's worst traffic snarls into a futuristic haven for electric buses, cars, trolleys, bikes, and even a shrub or two.
"It will make a real difference to commuters and local residents," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Ed Edelman, who helped negotiate the deal.
The sale settles a multimillion-dollar lawsuit Southern Pacific filed in 1985 in state court against the city of Los Angeles and Caltrans after the city rezoned the strip to bar real estate development. The Los Angeles County Transportation Commission will pay $13.75 million of the right of way's $27.5-million price tag. The state, city and county of Los Angeles will split the remaining cost.
Transit officials paint an ambitious picture of what is to come.
"It gives us an opportunity to innovate," said Steve Lantz, who oversees the Westside transit network for the County Transportation Commission.
Lantz envisions what he calls a "merging of modes" on the widened boulevard. Electric buses would replace the noisy, exhaust-belching city buses. The Southern California Rapid Transit District is in the process of purchasing its first electric buses. New forms of technology now make it possible to power them from buried electric lines, thus eliminating the overhead wires many residents have opposed as unsightly, Lantz said. "One of the first lines could be Santa Monica," he said.
Bicyclists will whiz down their own lanes, shaded by greenery. Cars will have extra room and even a lane for car pools. One day, light rail might even join the flow.
That is, if federal funding comes through.
Local transit officials are banking on the hope that their scheme qualifies for a $30-million transit demonstration project. Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Los Angeles) is pushing legislation through Congress that could secure the funding for the project.
If the bill passes, money could be available in two years and construction might begin in five years.
"That's our dream--but obviously we'll have to wait and see," said Phil Hess, deputy to Supervisor Edelman.
The purchase is the latest effort by local government to preserve aging railroad lines for public transit.
"This is just a tiny piece of a broad strategy to use these lines as the basis for a comprehensive commuter rail and public transit system throughout the county," Hess said. "The reason it is so critical is that for years it was operating at service level F--which was total gridlock. Now we have an opportunity to do something innovative with it."
Last year the County Transportation Commission paid Southern Pacific $450 million to acquire 115 miles of right of way and operate on another 135 miles of railroad track.
That deal included the purchase of a site that could serve the Westside--the old Exposition line, which runs 14 miles from Santa Monica to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and USC areas. Officials say a light rail line on this route could connect Santa Monica with downtown Los Angeles and the Los Angeles-Long Beach Blue Line, which last summer became the city's first operating light rail system.
The Exposition line would be linked to what officials envision as a 350-mile rail network bridging five counties.
But several homeowner groups, backed by Los Angeles Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, argue that the light rail will ruin their neighborhoods with traffic and noise.
Yaroslavsky claims the Exposition line will not be needed if a line is built along Santa Monica Boulevard, and he sees last week's purchase of the right of way there as a first step.
Others, however, note that connecting Santa Monica Boulevard in the Westwood area with downtown Los Angeles via light rail may prove difficult. A decade ago, the rail right of way along Santa Monica Boulevard extended through Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. Beverly Hills, however, has already purchased its right of way from Southern Pacific and developed a park and some stores on it.
The County Transportation Commission is holding three hearings this week for preliminary discussion of Westside transit options, with the Exposition rail line the primary topic. The last of the hearings is tonight at 7 in the auditorium of the Santa Monica Library, 1343 6th St., Santa Monica.