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Is a Busway the Valley Way?

Times Staff Writer

With its expansive geography and wide boulevards laid out in neat grids, the San Fernando Valley has always been an unapologetic symbol of California’s car culture.

So perhaps it’s fitting that the first mass transit line entirely within the Valley will come not in the form of a subway or light rail but on rubber wheels. The Orange Line, scheduled to open a week from Saturday, is a concrete roadway carrying high-tech buses that look more like Japanese bullet trains than like the MTA coaches seen crawling along Ventura Boulevard.

Transit planners hope the $350-million, 14-mile bus-only line between North Hollywood and Woodland Hills will get Valley residents used to mass transit and encourage the development of more apartments and mixed-use projects along the route. The system’s most optimistic boosters predict that the link between the Orange Line busway and the Red Line subway to downtown Los Angeles will help tie the city together.

“This is going to ... join us again to greater metropolitan Los Angeles,” said Van Nuys resident Andrew Hurvitz, noting that the opening of the busway comes three years after the Valley tried to secede from Los Angeles. “It’s going to de-isolate the Valley.

“I feel like we’re at a turning point,” he added. “We are finally becoming less of a cliche than we were before. We’re a dense, urban city and must live differently than we did in the 1950s. We can’t [all] live in a single-family house with a three-car garage anymore.”

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But Hurvitz, an associate producer for a documentary film company with offices on Ventura Boulevard, said he’s unlikely to ride the Orange Line, although he thinks a student to whom he rents a room in his house might.

And therein lies the recurring conundrum of mass transit in Los Angeles: If you build it, who will come?

Skeptics note that because the buses must still stop at any red lights along the route, the Orange Line can’t match the speed of rail -- or even a car on a good day. The MTA says its clean-burning, extra-long and quiet coaches will be able to deliver commuters from Warner Center in Woodland Hills to the Red Line subway stop in North Hollywood in 38 minutes or less -- a run that can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour by car, depending on the notoriously unpredictable traffic on the 101 Freeway.

But the Orange Line “doesn’t go anywhere you would want it to go,” said Joel Kotkin, a Valley Village resident and Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “It’s a tour of the industrial bowels of the Valley. And there’s no place to stop to get a cup of coffee.”

Kotkin and others believe the Orange Line, like most bus lines in the city, will fill a need for low-income workers and students. But, he adds, it won’t do much to unclog the 101 -- or even nearby surface streets, such as Ventura, Victory and Van Nuys boulevards.

“I think it might be a great thing for a teenager in Valley Village who’s got a job three days a week at Nordstrom” in Woodland Hills, he said. “For a woman cleaning house in Chandler Estates and living in Reseda, for that person, it works.”

“You won’t notice it on the 101 Freeway. It won’t be those kinds of numbers,” said Kevin Roderick, author of “The San Fernando Valley: America’s Suburb.”

MTA officials tacitly concede that point. They calculate that the line will have 5,000 to 7,000 riders a day in its first year, low even by Los Angeles mass transit standards. They hope daily ridership will grow to as much as 25,000 in 15 years.

The Orange Line marks a compromise from an actual Valley rail line that transit planners long dreamed about but nearby residents opposed for almost two decades. Officials switched to the busway approach seven years ago after concluding that it would cost 75% less than a rail system. They traveled to Curitiba, Brazil, to see its system of busways that crisscross the region.

The Orange Line route, a nearly straight shot that roughly parallels Victory Boulevard, is built largely on an abandoned rail line.

Freshly landscaped with native plants and trees, the Orange Line has 13 stops and offers riders a “back lot” view of green fields and youth baseball diamonds that white-knuckled motorists rarely get to see. A meandering bicycle path and walkway parallels the busway for eight miles.

MTA officials point out that the busway could be converted to light rail if it became wildly popular.

Even as a compromise, however, the busway has generated anxiety along its route.

Mitch and Tess Ramin live in a small, one-story house on nearby Chandler Boulevard with their baby daughter and are renovating a larger home next door that they plan to move into. Their tree-lined neighborhood in Sherman Oaks resembles that of “The Brady Bunch,” the classic family sitcom set in the Valley. (The “Brady Bunch” house is in Studio City about two miles from the Orange Line’s eastern terminus.)

The Ramins question whether the busway belongs there.

The real estate investor and his wife are concerned that the bus corridor that runs behind their backyards will cause noise and crime, pointing out that a transient has already moved into the landscaped easement between the sound wall and their back fence.

MTA officials “don’t care as much as we do because they don’t live here,” Tess Ramin said. “We moved here because of the backyard, to get away from the noise of the traffic.... Now there’s no escape.”

What’s more, during test runs this month to introduce bus drivers to the new vehicles and the route, the Ramins said they noticed that drivers were honking their horns as they drove through the blind intersection at Ethel Avenue just up the street.

MTA spokesman David Sotero said drivers were probably sounding their horns to warn oncoming vehicles of their presence, but that isn’t standard operating procedure.

The Orange Line traverses 33 intersections without crossing gates or warning whistles. MTA officials have been concerned about the potential for accidents and have offered safety programs at area schools to teach students how to navigate around the line.

Despite the concerns, there is also some excitement about the Orange Line finally beginning to run.

West Hills resident Dan Blake, an economics professor at Cal State Northridge and director of the San Fernando Valley Economic Research Center, said he’s looking forward to using it to get to Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday nights. It costs about $6 to park downtown but only $3 for a Metro day pass to ride any bus, subway or light rail train in a 24-hour period.

“It really does connect,” he said. “From one end of the busway, you can go to Long Beach and look at the aquarium.”

Blake and others believe the Orange Line, if successful, could spark the construction of more mixed-use projects near busway stations, a pattern that has emerged along the Red and Blue lines. Such projects would create more housing -- especially for families of moderate income who are being priced out of the Valley.

“There is a creeping urbanization going on in the Valley,” Blake said, “and this is one more indicator of it.”


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