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Alice in Transit Land : On Some Southland Projects, Logic Seemingly Has Taken a U-Turn


Ford engineers designed the classic '55 Thunderbird, but they also came up with the '57 Edsel. NASA scientists put a man on the moon, but a glitch in the Hubble telescope stumped them for years.

History teaches us that for every act of genius, there is a blooper.

For Southern California, the 1990s have been peppered with historic accomplishments in transportation: Officials reopened the quake-shattered Santa Monica Freeway 2 1/2 months ahead of schedule. They cut the ribbons on L.A.'s Red Line subway, the Century Freeway, the Metrolink commuter train, an Orange County toll road and the Long Beach trolley.

But at the same time, some baffling or plain wrongheaded transit projects and policies have been set in motion.

The lesson to be learned, experts say, is to beware the politics of transportation--a labyrinthine maze in which common-sense planning and logic sometimes lose out to political concerns or even greed. It is a system in which large sums of money are spent with spotty accountability, an equation that occasionally allows shortsightedness and often rewards political muscle, these observers say.

That's why, for example, bus passes for the poor cost more than passes for the general public. And why the planned rail route from Downtown to Los Angeles International Airport would involve riding two trolleys, one subway, a bus and a shuttle.

"You dignify a couple of these decisions to call them dubious. They are amazingly dubious," said James Moore, associate professor of urban planning and co-director of USC's Center for Advanced Transportation Technology. "You are heading fast and deep toward the category of stupid."

Here is a score card of some of the transportation bloopers that cover our landscape, and the reasons they happened:

* Why don't trains go where you want to go? The Red Line subway will stop a half-mile from the L.A. County Museum of Art and the Hollywood Bowl. It goes nowhere near Dodger Stadium or the Great Western Forum. And the last stop of the Green Line trolley--running between Norwalk and El Segundo--will end 1.5 miles from the airport.

In fact, here's your route to LAX from the subway once the Green Line trolley is finished next year: Tote your luggage over to your favorite Red Line station, transfer to the Blue Line, switch to the Green Line until the last stop, take the bus to Parking Lot C, and then hop on the airport shuttle.

In devising the routes of the Red Line and Green Line, transit planners had one main goal: transporting commuters. Officials have said the system is designed to serve those going to work--not sightseers, culture aficionados or sports fans. The number of people who would use the Green Line to get to the airport wouldn't compare to those who would take the trolley to work, they say.

* Why widen a freeway to six lanes and connect it to three lanes? In Orange County, Interstate 5 will be widened from three to six lanes of traffic in each direction--a $1.6-billion extravaganza to be finished in 2001. One problem: when the roadway hits the Los Angeles County line, it returns to three lanes. Ever heard of bottleneck, asks Ryan Snyder, a transportation consultant and vice president of the L.A. Board of Transportation Commissioners.

Caltrans officials said they hope the I-5 will someday be widened in Los Angeles County as well, although the project will not even be considered until 2010. In any case, officials do not think the traffic jams will be bad at the point where the freeway narrows.

This type of planning is what happens when different jurisdictions install a piecemeal approach to solve traffic woes, said Genevieve Guiliano, associate professor of urban and regional planning at USC.

"It's a regional planning problem," she said. "It's a question of different philosophies about how traffic should be managed."

* Why does the MTA need imported granite? The Metropolitan Transportation Authority--currently facing a $126-million operating shortfall and proposing fare hikes--will pick up part of the tab for a trip that sent five contractors and two agency employees to Italy and England to inspect bricks and granite for the agency's new headquarters, which is under construction.

The cost for MTA officials was $7,538. It's not yet known how much was spent for the contractors' travels. In response to criticism, Rob Vogel, project manager of Catellus Development Corp., which is building the MTA's headquarters, has told the agency he will not ask for reimbursement, according to MTA spokesman Steve Chesser.

During the first of two trips to Europe, the agency's development specialist, Robin Blair, and four members of Catellus traveled to Pisa, Italy, from Jan. 10 to 16. They viewed granite samples.

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