IN LOS ANGELES, YOU KNOW the conversation has died when anyone starts talking about traffic. It's idle chatter for commuters, because what can anyone do? Angelenos think of traffic the same way Chicagoans think of winter. If you don't like it — move.
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According to a study by the Texas Transportation Institute released last year, Angelenos spend an extra 72 hours a year in traffic due to road and freeway backups and slowdowns. That's the most time wasted by motorists in any U.S. city.
At Los Angeles City Hall, officials including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa have long floated the idea of a possible one-way plan for Olympic and Pico boulevards to move traffic between the Westside and downtown — but they didn't plan for the reaction from the city's powerful fiefdom overseers, the 15 members of the Los Angeles City Council. Now, just days away from a virtual ribbon-cutting to gradually turn Olympic and Pico into rush-hour minifreeways, Villaraigosa faces a hobbled vision — and a possible lawsuit.
“It's a joke, what they're proposing!” declared Councilman Bill Rosendahl on talk radio. He represents the far Westside's District 11, an increasingly isolated sector whose gridlocked residents face long delays even in off-rush-hour times.
Villaraigosa's plan, which essentially turns the two huge boulevards into one-way streets, originated with Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and his “Olympic-West, Pico-East” proposal. He envisioned making Pico and Olympic into one-way thoroughfares by banning street parking in the curbside lanes during peak hours and providing a “contra-flow lane” in the other direction just for buses and emergency vehicles.
As originally planned, the 14-mile route would run through Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Los Angeles, and through Los Angeles City Council districts 1, 5, 10 and 11. But immediately, the idea ran into trouble. Santa Monica refused to participate, making the route much shorter, starting at Centinela Avenue instead of at the ocean.
Then on February 5, when Villaraigosa presented his three-phase plan, he ran into a buzz saw of City Council fiefdom politics. He wanted to ban street parking on Pico and Olympic during peak traffic hours starting March 8, and by April he wanted to synchronize traffic lights on Pico and Olympic to favor east-west travel. (Phase three — after a promised careful evaluation of the first two phases — was supposed to include actual restriping of lanes and the addition of more westbound lanes on Olympic and more eastbound ones on Pico.)
But City Councilman Herb Wesson of District 10 wanted to carve his district out of the venture, just as Rosendahl did. Both were fighting to save the existing parking in the curbside lanes of the two boulevards, where shoppers use blocks and blocks of city-laid street asphalt for local parking.
Speaking on Larry Mantle's Air Talk show on KPCC, Rosendahl huffed, “Give commuters maybe five to six minutes, at the expense of my businesses and my residents?”
Going by the councilman's prediction of time saved, Villaraigosa's plan to reinvent local surface streets and save cross-town commuters about six minutes works out to around 26 hours a year, or an extra day not spent in your car.
Normally, opposition from two of the most affected Council members would have ended things, because City Hall is run like 15 separate council fiefdoms. Wesson could have his Wesson-istan, and Rosendahl could have his Rosendahl-uzbek. But to the surprise of the Council, Villaraigosa on February 14 announced through spokesman Matt Szabo that the Council has no jurisdiction over parking and streets. That's mayoral turf.
In a press release, Szabo wrote that the mayor was going ahead, “based in part on community feedback received over the past nine months.” But the mayor's plan wasn't as bold as it sounded. The Centinela-to-downtown route was now going to be a Centinela-to-Fairfax route, halting at the border of Wesson's district.
Now, just one week before the first phase of the plan is to be set in motion, the mayor's revisions include only two cities — L.A. and Beverly Hills — and two City Council fiefdoms — District 1 and District 5. The length has been slashed in half, to 7 miles.
A spokesman for Mike's Bikes, which opposes the changes and is one of many businesses that will lose its street parking, voiced the skepticism of many along Pico and Olympic, calling the odd compromise “like softcore — what's the point? If they're going to do it — do it.”
Councilman Jack Weiss, who represents District 5 on the traffic-choked Westside and supports Villaraigosa's edict, comes across as defensive and loath to discuss it. Asked by the Weekly if he favors the plan because he must also brave the increasingly impossible east-west commute, he responded, “Why are you asking that? What's your angle?”
Thanks to Wesson-istan, the route is now expected to attract downtown-bound traffic heading east along Pico Boulevard, then bring it all to a halt at Fairfax Avenue at the edge of Wesson's district, in an area known as Little Ethiopia. The cross street in Little Ethiopia, Fairfax, is a narrow single lane, chronically gridlocked and barely crawling much of the day — and soon to be filled with cars that have been funneled eastward on Pico, only to find that the one-way route abruptly ends at Fairfax.
Scott McNeely, president of the Pico Neighborhood Council, a vocal opponent of the “Olympic-West, Pico-East” route, says the already bad Fairfax Avenue gridlock “started the minute the Grove went in” — the upscale shopping center located far from Little Ethiopia, about 20 blocks to the north.
“Pico flows,” says former resident Denise Balugo, but the cross streets of “Fairfax and La Cienega are the worst.” Now, with City Hall about to invite motorists to use Pico Boulevard to go east — that is, until they get to Fairfax — a new bottleneck is predicted by some. Architect and urban planner Phillip Jon Brown says the plan is “obviously going to have blockage.”
Allyn Rifkin, author of the original feasibility report for Yaroslavsky, says the route should extend at least as far inland as La Brea Avenue, “because there's an easier transition there” compared to the stopping point at Fairfax, which includes a daunting six-point intersection where it crosses Olympic Boulevard.
But Andrew Westall, a spokesman for Wesson, says, “For us, it's a victory.” He says that their “biggest issue” is how to preserve parking on Pico between Fairfax and La Brea, not the new bottleneck expected at the edge of Wesson's City Council district — and not what might happen to quiet neighborhoods near Fairfax as motorists seek surface-street routes around the bottleneck.
Villaraigosa stated in a press release last year that his one-way idea for Pico and Olympic would “prove that it works here at? L.A.'s gridlock epicenter, and then we are going to take this model citywide.”
Is the “gridlock epicenter” now set to become Pico and Olympic at Fairfax? Opponents asking this question (and calling themselves the Pico-Olympic Village People) distributed a flier that states, “We oppose the mayor's plan because it is bad for residents — by attracting more commuter traffic, it will compromise the safety of our streets and air quality” — and also make the shops along Pico and Olympic extremely tough to access.
Weiss, who supports the plan, told the Weekly that the rush-hour parking restrictions would only overlap partially with the shops' normal business hours. But he was clearly uncomfortable discussing the changes, and quickly hung up the phone.
Maybe that's because Weiss, an attorney, has heard that Jay Handal, chairman of the Greater West Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, and its affiliated group, Olympic Pico Solutions, have announced that a coalition of businesses and residents will sue to stop “the mayor's ill-conceived plan.” One of the coalition's questions is, “How does the city pay for the [traffic] mitigations they have been promising, given the city's money problems?”
Olympic Pico Solutions claims it has already raised approximately $10,000 and needs another $10,000 — to hire the same law firm that defeated the mayor's plan to take over the Los Angeles Unified School District.
If the group fails, the first phase of Villaraigosa's scaled-down “Olympic-West, Pico-East” route will launch in a matter of days. But it won't go through Wesson-istan.
Tina Dupuy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.