Improved Sepulveda Boulevard makes its debut

When Sepulveda Boulevard’s namesake reigned in the 1840s, the present-day road was part of a huge cattle ranch with grazing land and canyons studded with oaks and sycamores.

Few motorists who now crawl along the Westside thoroughfare know about Francisco Sepulveda, but they can be excused for feeling a little like the rancher’s cattle as they inch along in rush hour traffic.

Officials have talked for years about improving Sepulveda, which is a major route into Los Angeles International Airport.

It’s also a shortcut for drivers trying to avoid the often-jammed 405 Freeway through the Sepulveda Pass into the San Fernando Valley -- especially during recent freeway construction, which is supposed to last another three years.

But Thursday they were able to celebrate some progress as officials christened widened lanes through Westchester at the northern entrance to LAX. City officials also hope to eventually break ground on another set of traffic improvements along Sepulveda at the pass, including a new reversible lane.

Both residents and transportation officials said it’s about time Sepulveda -- known as L.A. County’s longest street -- got some attention.

“It’s a major, defining part of the Westside,” Councilman Bill Rosendahl said. “It is one of the main arteries into [the Westside] from the South Bay.”

Rosendahl and other transportation officials gathered at Sepulveda Boulevard and West 89th Street in Westchester on Thursday to mark the completion of the $11-million widening and landscaping project along a roughly two-mile stretch between Howard Hughes Parkway and Lincoln Boulevard.

The project, which broke ground in 2007, added a third traffic lane in each direction on Sepulveda and changed the curb lanes into full-time parking lanes from north of Manchester Avenue to 92nd Street, officials said.

Crews also added right-turn lanes at heavily trafficked intersections, planted trees along refurbished and new sidewalks, and installed medians, among other changes.

Changes to Sepulveda Boulevard are often difficult and controversial because the road is so congested. Officials estimated that between 35,000 and 40,000 vehicles travel that two-mile stretch in Westchester every day.

The challenge for transportation planners was to keep traffic flowing in and out of the airport while also leaving room for customers who frequent businesses along Sepulveda. Officials said it took time to find the right balance between the needs of the community and the needs of commuters.

“It has been a long journey. This project was conceived nearly 15 years ago,” said Haripal Vir, principal transportation engineer for the L.A. Department of Transportation.

John Ruhlen, 76, has lived in Westchester for four decades and said he likes the final results. He said that before, the street could get jammed with airport traffic -- particularly during holidays when LAX was most busy.

During those periods, shoppers struggled to find parking and navigate the Westchester business district, he said.

“It took forever to get this project done. I’m just happy I lived to see it,” Ruhlen said.

Officials said their next target is high in the Sepulveda Pass, where the city wants to build an $11-million reversible lane for the tunnel, among other improvements.

That tunnel has been a problem because it can accommodate just three lanes of traffic, two of which are for southbound traffic and one of which is for northbound, creating a headache for drivers returning to the San Fernando Valley during the afternoon rush hour.

The plan is to make the middle lane reversible.

Michael Hunt, the project’s manager for the Department of Transportation, said the endeavor has faced delays but that officials expect it to be completed sometime in 2012.

Other elements of the project include adding bike lanes from Skirball Center Drive to Bel Air Crest Road and creating right-turn only lanes at Sepulveda and Wilshire boulevards.

Sepulveda has become even more of a crucial route in recent years as officials widen the 405 Freeway. The freeway construction has pushed even more traffic onto Sepulveda at certain periods. Sepulveda is expected to remain a relief valve as construction begins later this month on the section of the 405 through the pass.