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Signal fixes get the green light

City Council approves $6 million in upgrades to help bring relief to traffic-weary residents on the Westside. More action is planned.

August 16, 2007|Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writer

L.A. officials Wednesday approved traffic improvements for the car-clogged Westside, including traffic signal upgrades at 361 intersections and the addition of 33 left-turn lights.

The move comes after years of complaints about increasing congestion during rush hour, particularly on major boulevards such as Santa Monica, Wilshire and Olympic.

The city and regional officials are also considering several big-ticket improvements, including making Pico and Olympic boulevards one-way and building two rail projects.

But officials said they hope the signal improvements -- which include installing the latest software in traffic lights to speed cars through intersections and giving traffic engineers live video monitoring -- can offer some immediate relief.

"We're in total gridlock on the Westside. It's a nightmare," said L.A. City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents the Westside. "These are ... quick fixes that would give people some relief."

The nearly $6 million in projects approved by the City Council on Wednesday are funded in part by developers' fees that are paid to the city to mitigate traffic problems, and will benefit neighborhoods including West L.A., Westwood, Palms, Century City, Westchester, Venice, Playa del Rey and Mar Vista. Installation will begin later this year.

The first fix would replace hundreds of traffic signal computers that were installed in the 1980s and 1990s. The new hardware will be more finely tuned so that it can lengthen green lights for streets with more congestion and be less likely to malfunction and switch to a flashing red light after a blackout, said Sean Skehan, principal transportation engineer at the city Department of Transportation.

The upgrades also will supply more live data and video to the department's central headquarters, where traffic engineers can adjust traffic lights based on real-time data.

"So if we have heavy traffic on Pico going westbound, we can favor green lights westbound on Pico to alleviate traffic," Skehan said.

Adding more left-turn lights will enable motorists to make a left-turn more quickly during peak hours, Skehan said.

The Westside has some of the worst traffic in Los Angeles, in large part because of huge commercial development over the last two decades that has made Santa Monica, Century City and Westwood major job hubs.

Traffic on the Westside's two major freeways -- the 405 and the 10 -- is increasing. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has declared Wilshire Boulevard the busiest road in L.A. County. MTA research shows that it can take as long as 19 minutes to drive just one mile of Wilshire near the San Diego Freeway during evening rush hour. MTA analysis has identified numerous Westside intersections where traffic is worsening. Among those at the top of the list: Venice Boulevard and Overland Avenue, Sunset Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway, and Sunset Boulevard and Chautauqua Boulevard, where traffic has increased 38% since 1999.

"There's no secret that L.A. remains behind in modernizing its traffic lights," said Councilman Jack Weiss, whose district also includes the Westside. The action "we can take today will produce real results right now."

Weiss and Councilwoman Wendy Greuel introduced a motion Wednesday to set up the first strategic transportation plan for the city. Last month, Weiss asked the city Department of Transportation for its master plan and list of top needs, and found out there were none.

"It's municipal malpractice," Weiss said. "We have a strategic plan for other important aspects for our city, but the one most vexing issue, traffic. . . there's no vision statement."

Also Wednesday, the council voted unanimously to apply for a $27-million federal grant to create bus-only lanes on Wilshire Boulevard, the densest region of employment and population in the region.

If implemented, the proposal would use the curbside lanes of Wilshire Boulevard, which switch from street parking to a third, extra lane of traffic during rush hour, to bus-only lanes.

Some traffic officials consider the bus-only lanes as an interim solution to the idea of the "Subway to the Sea," a proposed expansion of the Red Line beneath Wilshire Boulevard that has long been stalled because of political issues and its projected $5-billion cost.

Officials said if the lanes work, it would encourage motorists to take the faster-moving buses, and reduce congestion along the dense corridor.

But not everyone was convinced that the lanes would work, and the idea has been criticized by some who believe it will punish motorists by taking the curbside lane away from them during rush hour.

"You can't take a third of the drivable lanes from people who are already stuck in traffic for 45 minutes," said Jay Handal, chairman of the Greater West Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce board. "Take a guy who earns a half-million dollars a year. He's going to drive to a parking lot and get on a bus? I don't think so."

ron.lin@latimes.com

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