Exasperated by spreading opposition that one commissioner compared to a "cancer," the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission on Wednesday abruptly halted consideration of light-rail routes for the San Fernando Valley.
The commission's 8-1 vote stunned, then delighted, the handful of opponents who remained to the end of a stormy three-hour session in downtown Los Angeles on Valley light rail.
Unless reversed by the commission, the vote effectively closes the door on Valley light rail for at least several years.
However, commissioners left the door ajar by inviting Valley elected officials and groups involved in the light-rail debate to come up with a plan.
The commission staff was directed to return next month with proposals on how such a consensus might be developed.
Before the vote, opposition leaders, backed by more than 100 vocal opponents, had repeatedly denounced the commission and its staff for considering routes that would run trolleys through residential neighborhoods.
For more than a year, commissioners had turned aside such angry protests, most of them from established homeowner leaders, and steadfastly continued to study five east-west routes for the street-level commuter rail line.
But Wednesday's session, at which several new opposition coalitions surfaced, apparently convinced the commission that the storm of protest could not be overcome.
This time, the opposition was not offset by continued strong support from the Valley business community. Representatives of more than 25 chambers of commerce and other business groups spoke in favor of continuing the route-study process.
Proponents, who say trolley lines are needed--along with freeway and bus-route expansion--to head off traffic congestion in the 1990s, left the meeting before the vote was taken. Leading proponents could not be reached for comment.
Commissioner Jacki Bacharach, who initiated the move to shelve Valley light rail, compared the opposition to "watching a cancer grow" and predicted that Valley residents would "regret the day" that the route study was halted.
Bacharach, a Rancho Palos Verdes councilwoman who heads the commission's route-selection committee, said she was tired of being attacked by Valley homeowner leaders while "watching other areas of the county fighting for these precious dollars."
"Let the Valley figure out what it wants, and then call on us."
The lone opponent on the commission was Marcia Mednick, an employee of the Van Nuys Chamber of Commerce, who said, "What I see is dollars walking out of the San Fernando Valley."
Routes under study were the Ventura Freeway, the Los Angeles River, a route that follows Chandler Boulevard and Oxnard Street east of the San Diego Freeway and then largely follows Victory Boulevard west to Warner Center, a route that largely follows Victory Boulevard the length of the Valley, and the Southern Pacific railroad main line, which runs diagonally across the Valley, connecting North Hollywood with Chatsworth.
The Chandler-Victory and Victory routes, which both pass through areas of single-family homes, have drawn the most heat, although no route is unopposed. The two routes also have elicited the most support from business leaders, who value them because they provide a fairly direct connection between Universal City and Warner Center, expanding commercial areas.
The commission's vote Wednesday was to immediately halt work on a $1.6-million study of the five routes.
The study, expected to be completed in 10 months, was to serve as a basis for final route selection. Staff members said about a quarter of the work is finished.
The commission, created by the Legislature, is building a countywide network of light-rail lines with the extra half-cent sales tax that county voters approved in 1980.
Commissioners have said the Valley is competing with northeast Los Angeles and communities north of Los Angeles International Airport for the next trolley line.
With the Century Freeway and Los Angeles-Long Beach lines under construction, there is enough money for only one more line, transit planners say.
Finished in 1994
The line selected is expected to be completed in 1994.
Both of the competing areas are actively petitioning for light rail, transit planners say, and final route selection is all that remains before the winner can be named.
Before Wednesday's surprise vote, commission staff members had said that, because of the political clout of the Valley's delegation in the Legislature, it had an apparent edge.
In recent months, commissioners have privately expressed disappointment that only a handful of individuals unattached to any group have registered support for Valley light rail.
After a previous Valley session, at which opponents blasted the five routes at length, Commissioner John La Follette complained in an interview: "I live in the Valley, and I have yet to hear from anyone--any one individual, that is--who wants it and says they will ride it."
Commissioners indicated that they were influenced by the All Valley Transportation Coalition, a group organized in recent weeks by Gerald A. Silver, vocal president of Homeowners of Encino who contends that light rail would chiefly serve Warner Center developers.
The coalition of 12 organizations, including six established homeowner groups and several new groups fighting one route or another, issued a statement that did not oppose any routes, but demanded that the environmental study "be terminated and a citizens' commission be established immediately to develop acceptable transit."
Tom Herman, chairman of the North Hollywood-based East Valley Transit Coalition, the first and largest light-rail opposition group, was jubilant after the vote, saying, "They finally listened. I can hardly believe it."
Ironically, Valley light rail was on the commission's agenda only because the staff was delivering a periodic status report on the route study. No commission vote was required or expected.