On the eve of every Sabbath, about an hour before sundown, the sidewalks along Chandler Boulevard in Valley Village begin to fill. Scores of Orthodox Jews slowly make their way from home to shul, half a mile or so. The walk seems as safe as can be.
But the ritual will become dangerous to synagogue-goers, some contend, if the Metropolitan Transportation Authority moves forward with plans to build a 14-mile busway linking the Metro Red Line station in Universal City to Warner Center in Woodland Hills.
"You're talking about a massive number of buses going smack through a residential area, even on weekends," said Rabbi Aron B. Tendler of the Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Valley Village. "Any mass transit system along that corridor would be a safety issue and an interference issue."
In many respects, the debate over the 1 1/2-mile stretch of Chandler, home to about 6,000 Orthodox Jews, mirrors that of other MTA projects in neighborhoods throughout the city.
But what makes this one different is its combination of religion and not-in-my-backyard sentiments, a potent mix that MTA officials say has led to scare tactics and loaded rhetoric.
Leaders of the Orthodox community are determined to block the Chandler portion of the busway, saying it would destroy their way of life and possibly even take lives.
They speak of increased noise and pollution, plunging property values and the threat of speeding buses mowing down pedestrians.
"If there was an Amish community in North Hollywood, would they run a transportation corridor through their community?" asked Rachel Joseph, a resident of the Orthodox community. "We moved to the Valley to get away from the city."
In hopes of softening the opposition, the transit agency has offered to make accommodations, such as adding mid-block pedestrian crossings and outfitting "Walk-Don't Walk" signs so they can be operated without violating the Sabbath's prohibition against work--which would include pushing the traffic control button at corners for a "walk" sign.
But those overtures have been spurned, officials said. An MTA board decision on the busway is due within a few weeks.
Agency spokesman Mark Littman called "totally bogus" the claims that the MTA plans to allow freeway speeds on Chandler.
"We already have buses on Chandler, and the maximum speed of those vehicles is 35 mph," he said. "That's not going to change with a busway."
Buses Would Keep to Designated Lanes
He denied allegations that bus operators would override traffic signals or that the MTA would erect what Tendler and others have called "Berlin Wall-type" sound barriers that would physically divide the community.
"I don't care if they oppose the busway," Littman said. "But as the son of a Holocaust survivor from Berlin, I take great offense to the mischaracterizations and scare tactics. That imagery has no place in a public policy debate, and it's an abuse of their moral authority."
The busway would begin at the Metro Rail subway station at Chandler and Lankershim boulevards, head west along the Chandler median and cross the intersection of Fulton Avenue and Burbank Boulevard near Valley College.
The route then parallels Oxnard Street to Sepulveda Boulevard and extends into the West Valley via a San Diego Freeway underpass.
Littman said the Chandler route is preferable because the agency owns the right of way and operates buses that travel every five minutes during peak periods along the boulevard between Lankershim and Whitsett Avenue.
What's more, the buses would be restricted to separate, dedicated lanes, bypassing much of the rush-hour congestion, he said.
The $285-million bus line, which has been in the planning stages for years, would link the Valley to Hollywood and downtown. A cross-Valley trip would take just under 30 minutes.
In addition to the extra crossings and timed walking signals for the Sabbath, MTA officials have pledged to use clean-fuel buses, landscape the route and build pedestrian bridges.
Former Assemblyman Richard Katz, who chaired the Assembly Transportation Committee, noted that in other parts of Los Angeles--such as Pico-Robertson and the Wilshire corridor--solutions have been found that serve transit needs and respect the traditions of the Orthodox communities.
"Those areas are much more congested and the mitigation nowhere as significant as what is being proposed in the Valley," Katz said, adding that $160 million in state taxpayer money already has been spent to buy the Chandler right of way.
Despite the expenditures, politicians such as Rep. Howard Berman (D-Mission Hills), state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar), Los Angeles 5th District Councilman-elect Jack Weiss and Mayor-elect James K. Hahn say the line should not be built on Chandler.
In a letter to Jewish leaders, Hahn wrote that he is committed to "assuring that the city is a partner with the Orthodox community so that the community flourishes for years to come. . . . A transportation corridor along Chandler Boulevard is simply the wrong project for this area."
The debate over the busway dates to the mid-1980s when the MTA's predecessor--the Southern California Rapid Transit District--proposed an elevated rail system through the area.
Public Comment Period Ends Soon
A few years later, transit officials floated plans for a light-rail line on the same route, which was purchased by the MTA in 1991. At about that time, Gov. Pete Wilson signed legislation requiring that any rail line through the area be put underground.
MTA officials announced the agency's plans for the busway two years ago and last month released a 600-page draft environmental impact report. A 45-day public comment period ends July 3.
At a hearing last week, physician Gil Solomon drew hisses from the crowd of about 100 at Valley College when he said he was a reform Jew who regularly uses mass transit and he did not believe the busway would be dangerous.
The dispute reaches beyond the Jewish community. Diann Corral, president of the Laurel Plaza Neighborhood Assn., which represents 2,000 residents, argued that Chandler was preferable to an Oxnard Street alternative.
If anything, Corral told the audience, the safety issue applied more to her North Hollywood neighborhood because of its concentration of schools and heavy traffic.
"This isn't an Orthodox issue," she said. "It's an issue of 'do we need transportation?' And if we do . . . what is the best route? And that is Chandler."
But Amnon Charash, a financial consultant, predicted ruin for a quiet community if the Chandler line is built.
"If we don't prevail, we will be destroyed," he said.