Traffic talk and breakfast, over easy

Times Staff Writer

A few weeks ago, a flack for Assemblyman Lloyd Levine e-mailed. The boss had some thoughts on transportation.

"I know he has a lot of ideas and would relish the chance to share them," wrote Alex Traverso.

The Road Sage, of course, has a Jabba the Hutt-like appetite for fresh traffic ideas -- particularly from someone such as Levine, who represents the car-choked western San Fernando Valley.

"It's a problem we need to solve and the problem with solving it is there is not a simple answer," Levine said over breakfast at Solley's in Sherman Oaks a few days later. "And the two biggest impediments to solving it are two of the most intractable problems in public policy -- money and land use."

Hard to argue with that.

As for his ideas . . . Levine said he was for mass transit, walk-able communities and all that stuff. He also said he intends to write a bill that would allow public agencies to team with the private sector to build transportation projects.

The idea is that the private sector helps pay for a project in return for reaping some of the profits. Toll roads in Orange County, for example, got built that way. Such partnerships have been popular overseas for years and many California pols have been pushing for more of them, although some transit experts are skeptical that there are dollars to be made on mass transit -- a historic money pit.

Otherwise, Levine was a perfectly nice breakfast companion. He bikes to work in Sacramento three days a week, drives a Prius, is engaged to a television anchor ("I was single when we met," he noted) and really likes Bruce Springsteen. He may not be a traffic savior, but at least he's got good taste.

Levine is running for state Senate and is in a tough race against former Assemblywoman Fran Pavley for the Democratic nomination in the 23rd District in the Valley. The winner will probably take the Senate seat, since the district is rigged -- er, I mean apportioned -- to favor Democrats.

Pavley is a formidable opponent. She wrote the 2002 bill that would require better gas mileage for vehicles in California, although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is trying to block the state from implementing it. She also co-wrote the bill that requires the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, which earned Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a lot of good publicity when he signed it in 2006.

So I gave Pavley a ring. Any big traffic ideas?

She talked about her commute -- a 30-mile schlep in her Prius from Agoura Hills to Santa Monica, where she works part-time as a climate change advisor for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"The most frustrating thing is there are some days I spend four hours or more a day in my car and I think of all the productive things I can be doing instead of sitting in traffic," Pavley said.

Pavley, too, wants more mass transit and better partnerships among the feds, the state and cities to come up with solutions. She'd also like to reduce truck traffic and see more park-n-ride lots.

But she conceded that at the end of the day there are plenty of traffic and transit ideas on the drawing boards. "The frustration is that so many of these solutions require billions of dollars," she said.

Local pols have been talking about traffic for decades. As many ribbons as they've cut on new projects, gaining ground on the problem has proved difficult.

"We have a tremendous traffic problem that is steadily growing worse," said Norris Poulson, the mayor of Los Angeles, in 1953. "Half-hearted routine measures will not meet our difficulties. We must have boldness. We must have far-sighted thinking."

Yeah, that happened all right.

The problem in a nutshell is that traffic transcends any one political job. Every project is hugely controversial. And there is no penalty for doing nothing or nibbling around the edges -- pols usually don't get un-elected if, say, they don't sync traffic lights or build better mass transit.

That means Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (who is hardly averse to conflict) can keep talking about the subway to the sea even though he lacks a funding plan.

And that allowed County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky (who is deeply knowledgeable but has been in public office only 33 years) to complain publicly Friday that he can crawl faster than Westside traffic.

The L.A. City Council, too, recently spent an entire day talking about traffic. But the conversation steered toward the esoteric ins and outs of policy. Few members paid attention. Specific fixes were not seriously discussed.

I listened until a guy from Portland got going about urban growth boundaries. Isn't it kind of late for that here? To quote Springsteen, "Is anybody alive out there?"

A few odds-n-ends:

* The Federal Transit Administration boasted recently that President Bush has delivered nearly $9 billion in federal money for major mass transit projects across the United States since 2001. The proposed subway to the sea is expected to cost $7 billion. Hmm.

* Fun fact: Topping the list of recent contributions to Levine's officeholder account is $1,000 from Chevron.

* A heads-up for Foothill Freeway travelers: Caltrans is installing meters on ramps from all freeways that intersect with the 210.

Agency officials say the traffic lights will begin working in spring and will better space out traffic merging onto the 210 during times of heavy congestion.

So put down the cellphone, razor and curling iron, and be careful.

Next week: What makes a great street?

If you've got an idea, a question or want to rant or rave about your travels in the Southland and the state, e-mail steve.hymon@latimes.com.

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