LA HABRA HEIGHTS — Once again there are plans to take the most treacherous kinks out of Hacienda Boulevard, a twisting road that carries more than 21,000 cars a day over the slopes and curves of the Puente Hills.
City engineers have drawn up a county-funded proposal to straighten Hacienda's two major bends and to rebuild the rest of the city's three-mile stretch of the boulevard, even widening the right of way from two to four lanes.
As with previous proposals that went nowhere, the improvement plans are stirring a debate that pits safety and financial considerations against the preservation of the community's carefully guarded rough-hewn character. For the City Council, which has to approve the realignment proposal, it is a question of whether the 67-year-old road can be rebuilt without making it too modern for La Habra Heights' taste.
"We designed the community so we could be away from the hubbub and the screaming and shouting, and to bring it in with a four-lane is not what we want to do," stressed Mayor M. Jay Collins.
While the improvement plan calls for the boulevard to initially remain two lanes, the new right of way would allow a quick expansion to four lanes once a certain level of traffic congestion is reached.
Many of the city's 5,700 residents would just as soon make it harder--rather than easier--for the rest of the world to pass through their community's six square miles of hills and canyons. But as one of five major thoroughfares cutting through the Puente Hills, Hacienda Boulevard is well traveled by thousands of out-of-towners who rely on it as a commuting route.
More than half of the traffic accidents in La Habra Heights occur on Hacienda, even though it constitutes only a fraction of the city's 41 miles of roads. What's more, the city has to pay all of the boulevard's maintenance costs. If Hacienda is upgraded to state standards, city administrators could turn it over to the state, ridding themselves of a constant drain on the local treasury.
"The city probably spends $25,000 to $30,000 a year putting chewing gum and baling wire on the road," Elroy Kiepke, deputy city engineer, said of the city's efforts to maintain the boulevard. Those efforts, he added, fall short of what is needed.
"We have to recognize that the traffic pressure is there. . . . Not only are there safety, traffic and liability concerns, but there's another big factor, and that's maintenance," said City Manager Robert Gutierrez,
Twice before, in 1940 and in 1970, Kiepke said, Los Angeles County came up with plans to straighten Hacienda. Neither proposal went beyond the design stage.
The county is also involved in the latest plans. Recognizing the importance of Hacienda Boulevard as a regional route, the county gave the city $40,000 to fund a realignment study. If the council approves the plan, the county would pay for the reconstruction. The bill, huge by La Habra Heights' standards, would be about $15 million for a four-lane highway.
Kiepke said he didn't know if a two-lane Hacienda could be designed to meet state standards of width and grade. But he noted that thus far the county has only expressed interest in funding a rebuilding project with a four-lane right of way.
With the exception of the boulevard's two big bends--which have earned the local and appropriately descriptive nicknames of the Horseshoe and the Dogleg--the rebuilding would essentially be done along Hacienda's existing path. At the Dogleg, near the city's southern border, the road would be moved 500 feet to the west to soften the curve. At the steep Horseshoe in the north, the route would be diverted about 600 feet to the west. In both cases, Gutierrez said, care would be taken not to turn the road into a mini-freeway.
Nonetheless, the new road design drew opposition when it was unveiled at a community meeting last month, particularly from those homeowners who would be most affected by the reconstruction. About seven to nine houses would have to be torn down to make way for it.
Before reaching a final decision on the rebuilding plans, City Council members say they want more community reaction, so the city is mailing a citywide questionnaire polling residents on their opinions about the future of Hacienda Boulevard.
Councilman Collins, predicting residents will be
divided on the issue, said some are worried that "a wide, four-lane road is going to split the Heights in half."
For their part, council members are hedging. "I have tremendous reservations about the proposal but we have to examine both sides of the issue. I guess you have to say I'm sitting on the fence," Collins said.
Councilwoman Jean Good said the council will follow residents' wishes. "Whatever they want to do. It's their town."
Mind Not Made Up
Commented Councilman Charles Wolfarth: "I haven't really made up my mind yet. I would like to see it remain two lane as long as possible, but it has to be straightened out to remedy the safety hazards."
Should the city reject the latest realignment plan as too ambitious, Wolfarth said, it would still need to soften the twists and turns of the Horseshoe and the Dogleg at least a bit.
If the community chooses to do the road project in its own way, keeping Hacienda a two-lane highway that falls short of state standards, then the city would have to foot the reconstruction bill, as well as continue to pay for maintenance. The community poll will likely ask local taxpayers if they would be willing to absorb bond costs to cover a modest upgrading.
Even if the council decides to go ahead with the current improvement design, drivers can anticipate several more years of winding their way through La Habra Heights. Officials say a major reconstruction project would not begin for at least another five years.