Clock is ticking for Echo Lake's turtles

Times Staff Writer

A few weeks ago, an ace page designer for The Times named Pamela Wilson looked up from her desk and asked, "What's going to happen to the turtles?"

She was referring to the hundreds of red-eared slider turtles that over the years have taken up residence in Echo Lake, north of downtown Los Angeles. Most are descendants of pets dumped into the lake, and they're very, very cute.

The city is scheduled to drain the lake in 2010 and make about $90 million in fixes to clean up its water quality. That, of course, leads to the first question....

So what is going to happen to the turtles?

"I know we have tons of turtles there," city parks chief Jon Kirk Mukri said during a recent visit to City Hall. "We'll have to come up with a plan."

The challenge will be finding a temporary home for a population of turtles that may number in the thousands. Do you put them up for adoption? Create a temporary habitat at Echo Park or put them in other city lakes (most of which the parks department says also have turtle populations)?

Those pondering a more extreme solution should think otherwise. The turtle commonly used in turtle soup in the United States is the snapping turtle, not the red-eared slider common to Echo Lake.

What about putting the turtles in Lake Machado in Harbor City?

Reggie the alligator, who surfaced last week after an 18-month hiatus, may like that. Alligators are voracious eaters, and in Florida have even been known to occasionally chomp on cougars or bears. Yikes.

Speaking of Reggie, where did he go for 18 months?

We asked Brad Shaffer, the UC Davis professor of ecology who also is this column's go-to guy on reptilian matters.

Shaffer, in turn, referred to the seminal 1935 text "The Alligator's Life History," by E.A. McIlhenny (yes, of the McIlhenny family of Tabasco sauce fame).

One of McIlhenny's observations was that some alligators dig dens near bodies of water where they seek protection or hibernate, and that these dens can be 40 feet long.

"His observations are both old and restricted to Louisiana, but he was an expert," Shaffer wrote. "He suggests that the alligator actually digs out this den."

So, the question is whether Reggie perhaps dug such a den in a bank below water level -- where no one may have noticed.

How many buses would it take to carry all the people who take MTA trains each day?

About 5,410, assuming 50 people per bus.

The question is relevant because the Metropolitan Transportation Authority recently proposed across-the-board fare hikes that would see the basic one-way bus fare of $1.25 rise to $2 by 2009. Daily, weekly and monthly passes would see similar increases.

That has set agency critics bonkers. They blame the huge cost of building rail lines for driving up agency expenses and say the MTA should stick to its bus service.

In one sense, the critics are correct. Rail is hugely expensive to build. And many more people use MTA buses -- 1,348,556 passengers (including the Orange Line busway) on an average weekday in March versus 270,510 for the MTA's four rail lines. But let's think this through. First, there are more than 3,000 miles of bus lines in the city and only 73 miles of MTA rail lines. That shows rail is carrying its share.

And suppose that each one of the 137,433 people who took the Red Line on an average March weekday took a bus instead. At 50 passengers per bus, that translates to about 2,700 more buses on the roads of downtown, Koreatown, Hollywood and North Hollywood.

To put it another way, make that 2,700 more buses swerving in and out of traffic and stopping frequently.

Build a bus lane, you say? Great idea -- if you don't mind giving up space for private vehicles.

Here's another statistic: Although the cost of building rail is far higher than buying new buses, the cost of operating rail is cheaper. According to the MTA's 2007 budget, the cost of running a bus line is 61 cents per passenger-mile for buses, 49 cents for light rail and 47 cents for the subway.

The lesson here?

It is perfectly fair to question the wisdom of the proposed MTA fair hikes -- they are steep and probably would hit some of the region's most vulnerable riders square in the pocketbook.

But the county's population keeps growing and it seems that making the fare hikes a simple bus-versus-rail dispute is wrongheaded because to keep moving, the region probably is going to need a healthy combination of trains, buses and a lot of other creative ideas.

Has this column found a new home yet for Dodger Stadium?

Not yet, but the search we promised last week has begun. To catch up, this column is partnering with Eric Richardson, publisher of blogdowntown.com, to find a new site for a ballpark.

Why? We think that the current site of the stadium and its expansive parking lots has better uses -- such as an expansion of Elysian Park -- and is too far from public transit.

Readers can participate in the search. Richardson works at the mapmaker Cartifact and has created a website that allows viewers to drag Dodger Stadium and four other ballparks around on a downtown map to see where they fit best. Go to cartifact.com/stadium. Warning: The website is brilliantly addictive -- even better than watching bootlegged Bruce Springsteen videos on YouTube.

For example: There appears to be enough room on the block bounded by 1st, Grand, Temple and Hill streets for a new stadium that would allow for views of the San Gabriel Mountains and City Hall beyond the outfield wall. Disney Hall would be right across the street.

The not-so-small problem is that the site is occupied by the county courthouse and Hall of Administration -- with a park in between.

In the meantime, Richardson and this column took a walk on the 4th Street Bridge to check out a site that intrigued Richardson. He thinks it may be possible to build a stadium over the expansive Red Line subway yards along the Los Angeles River.

A fascinating idea -- and one of several we'll ponder in coming Mondays in this space.

Can Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge stop himself from making new friends wherever he goes?

No. See the photo.

Here's the back story: Times scribe Duke Helfand was accompanying LaBonge and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on their trade mission to Central America last week.

While waiting for Villaraigosa to meet with the mayor of San Salvador, LaBonge conveniently bumped into a team of smiling, young and very female majorettes outside City Hall.

Helfand snapped a photo of LaBonge as he posed with his new amigas and we're pleased to include it in the newspaper for the LaBonge family scrapbook.

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Next week: Is Los Angeles too sprawling for superheroes?

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steve.hymon@latimes.com

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