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Groundwork laid in 2008 for major transit changes in the Southland

When it comes to improving the ways we get around the Southland, change usually occurs at a glacial pace.

In one sense, that remains true at the end of 2008. There is little statistical evidence to suggest that any commuting patterns were seriously altered. Nor did any new roads or mass transit projects debut.

Yet, 2008 was very eventful. The groundwork was laid for some dramatic developments that could come in future years, and transportation was often big news. Here, from my point of view, are the 10 most significant stories of the year:

* A deadly Metrolink crash occurs in Chatsworth. The commuter rail agency suffered its third major crash with passenger fatalities in the last six years when a three-car train hit a Union Pacific freight train Sept. 12, killing 25 and injuring 135. The Metrolink engineer was text messaging in the moments before the crash and blew past a red signal light, although the train’s conductor and three observers say the light appeared to be green. The collision remains under federal investigation, but it has already prompted a committee of experts to recommend that Metrolink place more emphasis on improving passenger safety.

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Another Metrolink train hit a freight train in Rialto in November -- this time with only slight injuries to passengers. It remains to be seen whether Metrolink’s board of directors -- most of whose members rarely ride the trains -- will implement true safety fixes in 2009.

* Measure R passes in Los Angeles County. The Achilles heel of mass transit in L.A. County, the nation’s most populous, has always been lack of money.

Not anymore. The half-cent sales tax hike could provide $40 billion over its 30-year life span for a long, long list of projects that critics said were mostly designed to please the big city politicians who put the tax on the ballot. The story now is whether the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will stick with its spending plan and which road, rail and bus projects will get built first. The Expo Line and extension of the Gold Line look to have the edge. Of course, tax revenues will lag as long as the economy is headed downward.

* The “subway to the sea” is reborn. This long-held dream to run a transit line from downtown Los Angeles to the city’s heavily congested Westside didn’t have one cent of funding until Measure R passed. Now it has $4.1 billion, plus any state, federal or private money that can be secured.

The subway may also have a route. An MTA study this year determined that putting the line under Wilshire Boulevard -- with a swing south to Century City -- would result in the most ridership and that a second line from Hollywood to Beverly Hills via Santa Monica Boulevard could perform well.

That line, however, still has no money.

* A hands-free cellphone law goes into effect. Legislators guiding the state with the most cars in the nation overcame years of resistance from telephone manufacturers and made it illegal for drivers to hold cellphones to their ear. A first offense brings a $20 fine plus court fees that usually mean a ticket north of $70 in most parts of the state. On Jan. 1, text messaging while driving also becomes illegal.

* Congestion pricing gets the nod. After New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg met resistance to his plan to charge a toll to drive into lower Manhattan, Los Angeles secured $210 million from the federal government to convert the carpool lanes on parts of the 10 and 110 freeways into toll lanes.

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The plan is still being shaped, and the tolls will probably be announced this spring. Also in the works is a plan to use some of the money to add an extra carpool lane on the 10 between the 605 and 710 freeways, which means there would be more road space to potentially sell.

If the toll lanes work and speed up traffic, it’s going to be very tempting for officials to try this on other carpool lanes in the county.

* O.C. toll road is rejected. After years of talk, studies, more talk and loooong public meetings, both the California Coastal Commission and the U.S. Department of Commerce gave a thumbs down to a plan to extend the 241 toll road through San Onofre State Beach. The project now appears dead, once and for all.

* Gas prices go up -- then down. Four-dollar-a-gallon gas during the first part of the year inspired less driving, more use of mass transit, tanked SUV sales and “drill here, drill now” chants at the Republican National Convention. Then prices fell below $2 a gallon for regular, their lowest level since early 2005.

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* Obama is elected president. None of the many presidential candidates talked much about transportation. Obama did more than most and has given strong signals that he’s ready to pump billions of dollars of federal money into road and transit projects after taking office Jan. 20. We’ll see.

* Cyclists fight back. Cyclists have long complained that they get a raw deal on Southland roads. Then Dr. Christopher Thompson slammed on his brakes July 4, allegedly causing two cyclists to crash into his car in Mandeville Canyon and suffer significant injuries.

But this time, with the cycling community in outrage, authorities responded. Thompson was charged with two felony counts of reckless driving and is awaiting arraignment Jan. 15 in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

* High-speed rail bond passes. Voters agreed to issue up to $9.95 billion in state bonds to begin planning for a bullet train that initially would run between Anaheim and San Francisco. The project will need billions more to actually get built, but if it does, 2008 will be seen as the year things got rolling.

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steve.hymon@latimes.com


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