HIGHWAY HEADACHES CURSE OF THE CITY? BUDGET GAPS MAY STALL 'TICKET TO IMPROVEMENTS'.
The latest effort to bring gridlock relief to the choked 101 Freeway through the San Fernando Valley could come to a screeching halt if California's $35 billion budget crisis takes back funds promised for the work.
The $4.5-million 101 Corridor Study's team is trying to keep alive the ambitious work, narrowing in on a mix of options to fix the freeway by double-decking in some areas and widening others, along with simpler improvements such as bigger ramps to help in the short term.
But while word of budget problems and delays may boost the cause of Valley and Hollywood residents who loathe the plan and have noted its possible demise, cutting the project off one year before it's done would dash yet another chance to help thousands of motorists who endure gridlock on the 101.
``This is not just another study to go on a shelf somewhere. This is opening the door to some real, on-the-floor improvements,'' said Agoura Hills City Councilwoman Louise Rishoff, whose city was among the five neighboring cities that contributed $1 million to launch the study.
``If everything just comes to a screaming halt we would (lose) the benefit of everything that's been done so far. It's more than just a study. It's our ticket to improvements.''
Initiated in 2001, the study includes a range of options for improving traffic flow along the 40-mile corridor between Thousand Oaks and downtown Los Angeles.
What was supposed to make this study better than the dozen that have come before it were the much-touted engineering documents that are supposed to be produced in this final year of work for which funding is now in jeopardy. Rather than just ending up with a planning report, the documents would provide the necessary next step to begin shopping for construction funds.
The five options now being considered by the study team headed by the state Department of Transportation include plans for new lanes, another level or a train down the middle that could shave up to 22 minutes off future commutes.
Critics blast plan
The study has raised howls of protest from residents in the Valley and Hollywood communities where up to 1,040 acres - covered by homes, businesses, parks and schools - would be gobbled up by the improvements.
Some residents despise the project, saying it sounds the same as earlier, rejected proposals. They also have expressed mistrust at the Caltrans-sponsored community workshops, saying the improvement project has been laid out as a done deal, rather than a proposal subject to neighbors' input.
``It is our contention that this study is unacceptable because of its lack of proper notice to all the communities affected, its clandestine manner of operation, and its notable lack of public comment,'' the Cahuenga Pass Property Owners Association wrote in a letter to Caltrans, recommending that the study be halted and the no-build option be selected.
Some residents - who have stacks of earlier studies - decried another outlay of taxpayer dollars without any guarantee that traffic congestion will be fixed.
``This study was flawed from the very beginning because they didn't take the time to consult with the experts - the people who live and work in these areas, who use the freeway every day,'' said Studio City Residents Association President Tony Lucente.
``I'd almost be happier if it was kind of a clandestine, a conspiracy to override the residents. But I don't even think that was true. It was just mismanagement,'' he said.
``After all these years, they still don't seem to get it. It is a shame. It's a lot of our tax dollars going down the drain. We're witnessing another attempt to solve a serious problem. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like it's going to yield results.
``Meanwhile, we'll still be sitting in traffic on the 101.''
Money trailing off
So far, the study has exhausted the $1.5 million contributed by the cities of Agoura Hills, Calabasas, Hidden Hills, Malibu and Westlake Village- as well as the Southern California Council of Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Of the $3 million from the governor's Transportation Congestion Relief Fund, secured by state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, $300,000 has been spent and funding is secured through the end of the fiscal year in June.
It it the balance of that allocation for the third and final year of work beginning in July that is jeopardized by the state budget crisis.
Study officials are confident the money will be secured since the study is so far along.
``I am very hopeful that the remainder of the TCRP money that we were able to secure for the 101 Corridor Study will be available to complete the study with recommended improvements for the 101 Corridor, as well as project initiation documents for the most critically needed improvements,'' said Kuehl's transportation deputy, Laurie Newman, who is also the chairwoman of the study's steering committee.
The Governor's Office said Gray Davis was hopeful the project could continue.
``There are no easy choices in a year like this,'' said Davis spokeswoman Hilary McLean. ``The governor hopes these high-priority projects will stay on track.''
The final year of work is needed to draft the detailed design documents the study team needs to seek additional government funding.
The group is considering alternative funding sources or having the design work done in-house by Caltrans engineers.
Now, the team is two months behind schedule trying to wrap up its review of public comments and choose its recommended preference from among the five alternatives.
Those involved said coming up with tailor-made mix of improvements for different parts of the route has taken longer than expected, and the study has also been delayed because they wanted to make sure the community had ample time to be involved.
``The study effort is continuing,'' said Kevin Michel, MTA's planning director for the Valley. ``We're interested in completing it.''
He said the question now is: ``Does it make sense to go for this next detailed level of study if there isn't funding?''
Decades of ideas
The shelves of the MTA Library downtown are stacked with reports detailing studies on the traffic problems along the 101.
As recently as 1999, Caltrans prepared a ``Transportation Concept Report'' that recommended more lanes to help improve capacity on the 101 through the Valley. A decade earlier, officials proposed building a monorail down the middle of the freeway.
In the 1970s, the ``Sunset Ltd.'' and ``Freeway Transit'' - rail and bus lines, respectively, to be built down the Ventura Freeway - were studied for the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, the precursor to the MTA.
One engineer's study, in 1951 - before the Ventura Freeway was completed or Disneyland opened - suggested building a monorail along the L.A. River to help improve the ``immediate mass transportation problem of the Valley.''
The Cahuenga homeowners group even found a study from 1938, which noted: ``The Cahuenga Pass had become a congested traffic bottleneck in its role as principal route from downtown to the Valley, carrying between 45,000 and 50,000 vehicles per day.''
Lucente, the homeowners association president, said the study team should take the state budget woes to heart and look to cheaper, less-disruptive alternatives.
``Perhaps that's the silver lining on this cloud, it will force people to work with the community and develop workable, cost-efficient and realistic solutions,'' he said.
He suggested that Caltrans concentrate on beefing up mass transit across the Valley or improving freeway ramps to improve the flow.
The Cahuenga group's president, Krista Michaels said the association, with support from Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge, wants to meet with Caltrans and find out what's really on the table.
``There's enormous public interest,'' said Michaels, who wants the team to study other options, like building a subway or underground freeway similar to the ``Big Dig'' in Boston.
Rishoff, the Agoura Hills councilwoman, who is also a steering committee member, said she knows the derision that comes with doing a ``study'' but said getting the documents in order is the necessary first step to getting some relief.
She said along with the bold proposals, smaller improvements such as widened on- and off-ramps that could be done quicker and bring some improvements also are on the table as the study team narrows its choices.
``You have to either go out, go up or get people on transit,'' she said.
``I don't think anyone thinks the do-nothing option is a responsible choice. It's not doing nothing, it's allowing the condition to persist.''
Here are the top five options for easing congestion along the Ventura (101) Freeway, between Thousand Oaks and downtown Los Angeles:
--Do nothing beyond what's currently planned.
--Improve freeway on- and off-ramps, expand bus and rail service.
--Add one lane to four-lane stretches and one car-pool lane in each direction along the entire corridor.
--Add one lane to four-lane stretches, and two car-pool lanes in each direction, either at grade or elevated.
--Add one lane to four-lane stretches, one car-pool lane in each direction, and a rail line between Universal City and Thousand Oaks.
EASING CONGESTION (see text)