Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A plan to speed traffic on Pico and Olympic Boulevard

Mayor Villaraigosa is to announce a plan that is expected to cut travel times on the boulevards by eliminating parking during rush hour and re-timing lights.

By Steve Hymon, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer November 26, 2007

In a move that could be a preview of future traffic-busting efforts, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is expected to announce a plan today that aides say would significantly reduce travel times on Pico and Olympic boulevards while keeping them two-way streets.

The plan, however, is to make them behave more like one-way streets, which are far more prevalent in other cities but have not been used much in Los Angeles outside downtown. In this case, the plan is to give a decided time advantage to those traveling east on Pico and west on Olympic.

The move comes as part of an attempt by the city to more efficiently get people to jobs on the congested Westside in the morning and help them get out in the afternoon. City officials say travel time could be cut by as much as 45%.

The first step in the mayor's plan would be to immediately begin to eliminate parking on both streets during rush hour. Then, beginning next year, traffic lights would be re-timed so that those traveling west on Olympic and east on Pico would be rewarded with longer green lights. Those driving in the other direction might see their rides take longer.

If those two steps speed up traffic, mayoral aides say the city might take an additional step and restripe both streets, so most lanes on Pico would be for eastbound motorists, while westbound lanes would predominate on Olympic.

"This is a new, smart approach," Villaraigosa said in a prepared statement. "We are going to prove it works along two of the most congested corridors in the city. And when it works on the Westside, we'll take it citywide."

Traffic engineers in Southern California have been dealing for decades with the vexing issue of trying to squeeze more capacity out of roads.

In Los Angeles, the old way of dealing with the problem was to call in the bulldozers and simply widen the street.But such solutions no longer are feasible in many quarters because of lack of space. The problem is particularly acute on the Westside, where Beverly Hills, Century City and Santa Monica have become huge job centers that are served primarily by the Santa Monica Freeway and a few major surface streets, such as Olympic and Pico. As in much of the city, there is no rail service.

It remains unclear where else such an approach might be used -- if it even works. Los Angeles and many surrounding cities are bisected by large two-way boulevards that run parallel, often with neighborhoods in between. The upside of one-way operations is that traffic usually flows more smoothly. The downside is that more streets that are one-way or programmed to act as if one-way probably means that residents would have to adjust the way they reach their homes.

The mayor could implement his plan without lengthy hearings by the City Council, and the project has the support of Councilman Jack Weiss, whose district would be most affected by it. Mayoral aides said Villaraigosa early next year would roll out other initiatives to combat traffic citywide, which polls repeatedly show is a big concern to residents.

The debate over Olympic and Pico goes back decades but was revived this year when county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky proposed making each street mostly one way, along with adding a bus lane.

That plan met some opposition from community groups that said residential streets would be used as shortcuts between Olympic and Pico, while city officials said going entirely one way would yield only marginal improvements.

Yaroslavsky said he was pleased with the mayor's plan, even if initially it doesn't go quite as far as what he had in mind. The supervisor said it typically takes an hour to travel from Santa Monica to the 405 Freeway during afternoon rush hour, at about 3 mph.

In his view, the most gains would occur in the project's third phase, when both streets would be restriped to provide four lanes in one direction and two in the other. The cost of that is expected to be about $1.5 million.

"For that amount of money, the payoff is huge," Yaroslavsky said.

Los Angeles transportation officials quietly re-timed the lights on both streets, between Centinela Avenue and Century Park East, a distance of just over two miles, for two days last month to test the plan.

The change shaved one to seven minutes off the travel time, according to the city's Department of Transportation. Officials said even more time probably would be saved once motorists learn which directions on Pico and Olympic are favored.Deputy Mayor Jaime de la Vega said it was unclear what impact the plan would have over the long haul. He said officials would be willing to scrap it if it doesn't work.The plan would be in place on Olympic and Pico between Centinela -- the city boundary with Santa Monica -- and La Brea avenues. Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad said the city supports the plan but is taking a somewhat different tack, using a different technology to synchronize traffic signals on its stretch of Olympic.

Los Angeles transportation officials say Pico and Olympic already are exceeding their capacity by 25% between the 405 Freeway and Century City; 83 of the city's 322 known traffic bottlenecks are in that approximate area.

The mayor's staff does not believe the plan would enable motorists to speed. "Our goal is to get traffic moving as fast as possible, but within the existing speed limit," De la Vega said.

The mayor's office has circulated the plan to just a few local officials. Terri Tippit, the chairwoman of the Westside Neighborhood Council and the president of the West of Westwood Homeowners Assn., said she was open to the plan but had not yet seen it. Tippit, who has lived near Pico in West L.A. for years, said the earlier one-way proposal was unacceptable because she could not have gotten "to my house anymore."

She remained worried about any plan that would benefit commuters from other cities at the expense of Los Angeles residents.

"Why is it just L.A. -- and really just a portion of the Westside -- that has to make sacrifices for Santa Monica?" she asked.

Tippit lives in the Fifth Council District, represented by Weiss. On a drive down Olympic and Pico last week, Weiss predicted the plan would save motorists time.

"There's no question that streets in Los Angeles were not built to carry the kind of traffic that we ask them to," Weiss said as he navigated through Rancho Park. "The data shows that we can make an improvement to help people's daily lives.

"But to revolutionize Westside traffic, he added, "we need a subway."

steve.hymon@latimes.com

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