BUSWAY SAFETY CONTROLS BOOSTED 10 MPH SPEED ORDERED ENTERING INTERSECTIONS.
A day after the first major crash on the Metro Orange Line, Los Angeles-area officials pledged Thursday to make the new busway as safe as possible, while riders turned out in good numbers amid calls by critics to shut down the transit line.
Commuters woke up to slower buses and beefed-up law enforcement, including white-gloved traffic officers stationed at 13 Valley intersections, all part of the precautionary steps taken in the aftermath of Wednesday's collision that sent 15 people to the hospital, one with a severe injury.
The collision, one of two Wednesday, was caused by a 78-year-old motorist who ran a red light, possibly while talking on a cell phone.
Transit officials said more traffic warning signs will be posted around the busway as they weigh longer-term changes like railroad-style crossing gates or flashing lights.
Riders offered their own suggestions for orange ``Busway'' signs, red ``Do Not Enter'' signs, warning lights and horns, and even seat belts on the buses.
``We're not going to be deterred. This is a great line. It's a line that makes sense for people,'' Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said at an afternoon news conference that followed a closed-door meeting called to consider busway safety measures. ``We'll implement whatever we have to do to make this as safe as possible.''
Among the sharpest critics Thursday was state Sen. Richard Alarcon, D-Van Nuys, who called for the immediate suspension of Orange Line service until further safety measures are installed.
``It is now clear that the Orange Line constitutes a significant new hazard for motorists and passengers. The MTA's liability for these types of accidents, many foreseen by experts and citizens, will only get worse,'' Alarcon wrote in a letter to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
``I believe that the Orange Line is unsafe at any speed at the present time.''
But the mayor, who is also chairman of the MTA board, dismissed the senator's remarks as ``ridiculous.''
``Richard Alarcon's a good friend. But I would suggest that he get more information before he makes a suggestion like that. It's ridiculous, pure and simple.''
Buses were running a few minutes slower Thursday after drivers were ordered to slow to 10 mph through intersections. On Thursday, the trip between North Hollywood and Warner Center was taking between 42 and 44 minutes, about two to four minutes longer than before, officials said.
The MTA said daily ridership Tuesday and Wednesday exceeded 11,000 boardings, and that Thursday was on track to be stronger.
Morning commuters, meanwhile, were mostly unfazed by the collision.
``You have to think about how many accidents there are on the freeway every day,'' said commuter Amy Delisio, heading from Burbank/Fulton to her job as a nutritionist at a community health center in Watts.
``I'm sure it was scary at first, but this is the first week, so I'm sure they're going to work the kinks out.''
Harold Brown, who was en route from his home in Hollywood to his job as a security guard near the Tampa Avenue Station, suggested lights or bells at intersections.
``Once people get used to it, it's going to settle down.''
But Paula Solomon, heading back to Warner Center after class at Valley College, said she purposely avoided the Orange Line and took her old city street bus after hearing about the crash.
``They just had this already one week and we've already had accidents. That's why I didn't take it this morning. I was afraid,'' she said.
But on the way home, the promise of a 25-minute trip versus her usual 40-minute bus ride drew her back to the Orange Line.
City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who called Thursday's meeting, reiterated that all safety measures are on the table. Officials have previously said crossing gates are not needed because buses must stop at some intersections, unlike trains.
Buying gates now would cost more than $10 million, could take up to two years to install and could cause a noticeable jam-up in north-south traffic as the arms go down for buses passing every five minutes during rush hour, city officials said.
The city's Department of Transportation - responsible for engineering nearly three dozen at-grade street intersections on the busway's 14-mile path - will report at Greuel's next Transportation Committee next week about alternatives.
Immediately, DOT plans to put up additional warning signs at some intersections, paint more ``Keep Clear'' signs on the roadway and retime the signals to hold the red lights a few seconds longer to clear intersections.
Other items under consideration include:
--Electronically lit ``No Right Turn'' signs.
--Flashing ``Do Not Cross'' signs over the busway.
--Strobe lights on buses and at red lights.
--Photo enforcement cameras.
--Grooves in the pavement before intersections.
--``Busway Ahead'' signs before intersections.
--Virtual crossing gates made from laser lights.
Residents who sued the MTA to halt the busway in 2002 had steadfastly maintained that there should be crossing gates, pointing to the Miami-Dade, Fla., busway, the nation's first, which had to slow its buses down after numerous crashes. Officials there are now considering adding gates.
Former Los Angeles transit official Tom Rubin, who advised the residents in their lawsuit, said gates should be installed when buses are going 35 mph or more, as is required for trains.
He said the MTA's order to slow the buses down would also work, adding that's one item the residents had proposed in their settlement offer to the MTA in late 2004, which the agency declined. The group ultimately settled a short time later with the MTA for $300,000 in attorney's fees.
``If they're doing 10 mph (at intersections), it would be hard to see the need for gates,'' said Rubin, who had worked for the predecessor to the MTA. ``Knowing MTA as I know MTA, I think there is a not unreasonable chance that 10 mph will not be adopted as the long-term plan.''
MTA officials said Thursday that they hope to get back to normal operating speeds.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said the MTA has 4,000 bus incidents a year countywide; 2,000 of them, about six a day, are considered serious and involve either passenger cars or pedestrians.
``What we have here is a new game in town, a new kid on the block,'' he said. ``We're all going to get used to it.''
Staff Writer Rick Orlov contributed to this report.
Lisa Mascaro, (818) 713-3761
Traffic Officer Hall keeps an eye out for drivers making illegal right turns while a new Orange Line bus goes through the intersection of De Soto Avenue and Victory Boulevard on Thursday.
Tina Burch/Staff Photographer