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WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : Superhighway Hits Road Bloc : Irate Residents, Merchants Have Stalled a Plan to Turn Part of a Busy Boulevard Into a 10-Lane, Multiuse Route

At $69.1 million, the road project breaks down to a little more than $31 million a mile--surely one of the most expensive stretches of concrete and asphalt anywhere in Los Angeles.

Yet what that money will buy, no one is quite sure.

To some, it will pay for a modern 10-lane transportation corridor on Santa Monica Boulevard that will smooth the way between West Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, with separate lanes for buses, bikes, pedestrians and maybe even trains.

To others, it will merely buy a boondoggle that will cordon off neighborhoods, plant a congested highway in the middle of Westwood, and all but condemn a string of small and medium-sized businesses on the boulevard.

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Welcome to the oft-delayed and fiercely contested expansion/renovation of Santa Monica Boulevard, a project that spans only 2.2 miles but is now commanding its third decade of public debate.

Originally conceived as part of the short-lived Beverly Hills Freeway project during the 1970s, the proposed expansion is raising new concerns following the recent release of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s report outlining the agency’s plans for the route.

Needless to say, the latest incarnation of the project has not been well-received. The outcry from residents and merchants, in fact, has led the MTA to slow progress on the massive project while it reviews community concerns.

“It’s very ambitious but (the project) doesn’t need to be that big,” said Clyde Augustson, a board member of Tract 7260 Inc., a group of homeowners who live directly south of the boulevard. “What on earth is this thing?”

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That the two traffic-clogged Santa Monica Boulevard roadways--once part of the fabled U.S. Route 66--need to be modified is not much in argument. Residents and merchants alike point to the weed-choked median separating “little” and “big” Santa Monica Boulevard, the unsightly sprout of billboards and the lack of north-south access as reasons enough for the boulevards’ renovation. Garbage collects in the median, and the road--in contrast to the expensive condos and high-rises that line Wilshire Boulevard one mile north--has a mostly unkempt appearance. Even the harshest critics of the MTA’s proposal agree that Santa Monica Boulevard is a street in need of planning attention, or at the very least, beautification.

“Santa Monica Boulevard has not been looked after,” said Sandy Brown, president of the Westside Civic Federation and chief of staff for Democratic state Sen. Tom Hayden, who represents the area. “It’s been trashed--the sidewalks, the streets, the median.”

Added Laura Lake, president of Friends of Westwood, a community-based environmental group: “It’s a blight, and it’s been getting worse over the years.”

Currently, there are four state and local agencies shepherding the massive project: the city and county of Los Angeles, Caltrans and the MTA, with the latter acting as the lead agency. MTA proposes to create two separate but equal-sized Santa Monica boulevards from Sepulveda Boulevard to the border of Beverly Hills. Big and little Santa Monica would be enlarged from a total of six lanes to 10, with two reserved for buses. On the median, plans call for a bike path and a walkway, with the possibility of adding a light-rail line.

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Transit officials say the reason for the project is simple: congestion.

Currently, the average daily traffic volume on big and little Santa Monica between Sepulveda and Beverly Glen boulevards is a staggering 50,000 cars. And though the proposed 10 lanes would equal or top that of most local freeways, MTA Project Manager Patti Helm says the additional roadway is needed just to keep up with the roughly 70,000 cars that are expected to travel portions of the boulevard by 2010.

“There’s a definite need for this project in terms of current congestion,” Helm said. “The area is an eyesore and the traffic is a nightmare.”

Critics, though, counter that building a superhighway through the middle of West Los Angeles is not the answer to either the present or future congestion.

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Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, whose district encompasses part of the project, says that rather than making room for more cars by expanding little Santa Monica Boulevard--which acts as a buffer against the traffic on its larger namesake--more attention needs to be placed on making it pedestrian-friendly to entice people out of their cars. As such, Galanter said, she is “uncomfortable” with the project as proposed by the MTA.

“I’m disappointed that the MTA came up with the same solutions (to congestion),” Galanter said. “I’m convinced there is no one at MTA who has spent an appreciable amount of time as a pedestrian.”

Detractors also say the “10-lane solution” to gridlock will end up creating more stop-and-go traffic than ever because the widened stretch would bottleneck at both ends. Though commuters would travel on five lanes through Westwood and Century City, the boulevard eventually would again narrow into four lanes. The result, critics say, will make Westwood’s current congestion seem like easy sailing.

“There is not a whole lot of point in having a short stretch with a lot of lanes when you have a bottleneck at either end,” Galanter said.

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Helm, however, disputes the vision of commuters slamming to a halt when they reach the end of the five-lane stretch. Drivers, she said, will be granted plenty of time to adjust to fewer lanes as the five lanes gradually merge over several blocks. "(What’s proposed) is roughly the amount of laneage that exists now, only redistributed,” Helm said.

Another sore point among critics is the MTA’s proposal to eliminate street parking along the boulevards to make room for the extra lanes. In all, according to the agency’s project report, more than 310 public and private parking spaces could be eliminated by the project. And that, merchants say, would spell death for local businesses, especially because most of the side streets perpendicular to Santa Monica Boulevard have just permit-only parking for residents.

“It means no parking and no possibility of any alternatives,” said James Powers, whose Century City advertising agency on Santa Monica Boulevard already is so pressed for parking that several of his employees car-pool because of a lack of daytime spaces for their cars. “There will be zero availability of customer parking.”

Helm acknowledges the concern of merchants but says the agency is now studying ways to lessen the impact of the lost parking, among other concerns. “We do have plans to rethink the project before we go ahead,” she said.

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Whether the project will even move forward given its cost is another question mark.

Four years ago, a consortium of state and local agencies purchased the right-of-way along the boulevard for $27.5 million from Southern Pacific Transportation Co., which once ran trains down Santa Monica Boulevard. Since then, the agency has received $23.9 million in federal funds to implement a “demonstration project” involving mixed-use transportation--that is, auto, bus and bicycle lanes. But with the expansion budgeted at nearly $70 million, the agency will have to rely on a healthy amount of state, county and city money to finish the project. And that money may be a while in coming.

Aides for state Sen. Hayden and Democratic Assemblyman Wally Knox, who also represents the area, said both legislators oppose the expansion and will discourage the state from funding it.

“We have a two-step situation here,” said Barbara Caplan, Knox’s administrative assistant. “The first is ‘No 10 lanes.’ The second step is to make the project more accessible and comfortable for residents.”

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Yet what may be palatable to residents may also cost the MTA its federal money. Though Helm said the project need not conform to specific requirements to keep its government funding, Galanter said MTA officials have indicated to her that one of the conditions of keeping the federal funds is to build a 10-lane roadway.

To residents, meanwhile, there is no compromise on the matter of lanes.

“It’s going to be a horrible degradation to the neighborhood,” said Andy House, who lives 1 1/2 blocks south of Santa Monica Boulevard but says he will sell his home of 25 years if the roadway is built. “I’m a deer fixed in their headlights, and I’m going to get run over. I’m horrified.”

Despite such complaints, the MTA report, released last month, concluded there was “no organized opposition” to the expansion.

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The claim enraged several homeowners’ groups, whose members say they have been raising objections for more than a year. “I’ve never been to a (community) meeting where people haven’t been outraged (about it),” said Augustson of Tract 7260.

After the report’s release, Helm said, “We were surprised by the volume of (opposition), and how fast and loud it came.” She added that, as a result, the MTA’s agenda for the boulevard is now unclear.

In what might be a preliminary victory for project opponents, Helm said that for the next several weeks the agency will collect community input--with the hopes of gaining its cooperation. And until that input is gathered, she said, there will be no more action taken on the project.

“We don’t know where we’re going to from here,” Helm said. “It’s clear that an organized community can stop any transportation project. There’s a history of that in this corridor. We’re aware that unless we secure more community support, we can’t move ahead with this.”

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