ON THE AFTERNOON OF JULY 11, I was riding the Wilshire Rapid Express, bus line 920, a rush-hour express that makes only five stops between Vermont Avenue and the Santa Monica beach.
The 920s are all extended “articulated” buses, 60 feet long. Twenty feet longer than normal buses, they have two sections separated by a flexible joint that, from the outside, resembles an accordion’s bellows.
Swiftly re-entering Los Angeles, eastbound from Beverly Hills, the bus slammed across a pothole with such ferocity that two sealed windows blew open and many of the passengers screamed in terror. Los Angeles may be led by the Pothole-Fixing Mayor, but if you ride our 920 Express, you can easily drop a kidney at any point between Westwood and Vermont.
A month later, on Monday, August 11, the 920 bus didn’t show up at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, or anywhere else along its Wilshire route.
Though the MTA now trumpets the long buses for their speed and size as a comparatively inexpensive way to relieve passenger overcrowding along the city’s most traveled corridors, the hype about rapidity is not entirely true. The “Rapid Express” buses move as slow as the ever-slowing traffic, unless given their own restricted lane, and Los Angeles streets have never been built to accommodate them.
Instead, the buses are destroying the streets, and the streets are now striking back, the latest example of Band-Aid policy that passes for comprehensive planning in Los Angeles.
After waiting 45 minutes for the nonexistent 920, I boarded a 720 Rapid bus that makes many more stops than the 920, but at least it showed up.
“You’d be waiting a long time for that 920,” the driver told me, checking his side mirror as he swerved out of the far-right lane to avoid a pothole. He went on to explain that the MTA had pulled all 920s out of service because 30 of Metro’s pricey, highly touted articulated buses were found to have cracked frames.
“They never should have bought those things,” he said of the board of politicians who run the $3 billion-a-year MTA system, before theorizing that the potholes along Wilshire Boulevard are the culprits.
Richard Hunt, general manager of Metro’s San Fernando Valley Service Sector, who’s also involved in bus procurement, tells L.A. Weekly that the Wilshire-route bus driver was dramatically exaggerating the number of broken buses — and that drivers can drive around the potholes to protect their buses.
To avoid the potholes completely, however, drivers would need to veer frequently into oncoming traffic, or up onto the sidewalk. But Hunt says only one driver of an articulated bus pulled into the yard after a shift on Tuesday, August 5, to report that the vehicle was not handling properly. Mechanics observed a broken frame. “That’s one bus,” Hunt emphasizes. And the precise cause of the crack could not be determined.
As a precaution, he says, the manufacturer, North American Bus Industries, offered to inspect the city’s entire fleet of 391 articulated buses. They are all under a life-of-service warranty, Hunt says.
He says the inspection revealed that “50 had an indication that there might be a problem.” On August 19, Metro reported that “a total of 29 of the 50 buses pulled from service last week have been retrofitted. Retrofits are pending on 18 more buses. All but three buses are back in service.”
John Sapone, district supervisor for the city’s Bureau of Street Services, says modern buses and trucks “generally have axle-load ratings that exceed the original design limits of a roadway, causing ‘pavement failures’” — big cracks and potholes — on long-unreinforced Wilshire and many other streets.
Sapone estimates that in the past three months, 794 small asphalt repairs have been performed on Wilshire Boulevard, just between Vermont Avenue and Fairfax.
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Wilshire “is in very poor condition” on the basis of data provided by the bureau’s Pavement Management Section. It’s “one of my known hot spots,” Sapone says. “My challenge is staying one step ahead of the next repair.”
Yet Sapone has just one pothole truck — to repair 275 miles of streets. He yearns for the day when the city spends its resources on concrete bus lanes for Wilshire, which are much tougher than asphalt.
That obvious idea has been advocated by City Councilman Bill Rosendahl — since 2005. According to Rosendahl, there’s hope it might happen: The feds have promised $28 million for “dedicated” bus lanes along Wilshire.
In the meantime, perhaps the city can throw a bake sale and get Supervisor Sapone a second pothole truck.