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Mayor's traffic project stalls

Judge says the plan to reconfigure Olympic and Pico boulevards needs further study.

May 06, 2008|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's chief plan to speed traffic in Los Angeles was delayed Monday when a judge ruled that more study, which could take months, was needed before two Westside thoroughfares could be altered to work more like one-way streets.

While still weighing whether to appeal the ruling by Superior Court Judge John Torribio, Villaraigosa said through a spokesman that city officials would press on and try to complete an environmental review as quickly as possible.

Torribio found that city officials had not fully considered complaints that reconfiguring Olympic and Pico boulevards -- in part by removing on-street parking -- would make it harder for shoppers to visit merchants and burden neighborhoods with unwanted cut-through traffic.

In his five-page ruling, Torribio took particular umbrage to a claim by the city that the project didn't need to be studied because it wasn't a major change to how the streets were managed.

"In other words, the very purpose of the project is to expand the use of the existing streets," Torribio wrote. "To claim that the project will not expand the current use and is therefore exempt" from further study "seems inconsistent with the stated purpose."

In court, attorneys for the city had argued that California environmental law gave exemptions to cities to change traffic-light timing and convert parking lanes to traffic lanes without extensive studies. But Torribio said the cumulative impact of the city's actions demanded a more thorough look.

In the war against L.A. traffic, the Westside has become the frontline as more jobs have migrated to that part of town, bringing commuters and their cars with them. But the combination of affluence and political influence has historically made improving roads there a difficult proposition since every plan has its opponents.

Some Westside residents said the Olympic-Pico plan was worth trying -- and that additional study wouldn't tell very much.

"I think that some of the opposition had legitimate concerns about business, but some of it was that we don't want to do anything different because something bad might happen," said Jeff Jacobberger, the transportation chair of the Mid-City West Neighborhood Council. "But that's how we got into this mess."

The first part of the city's plan would involve removing parking along parts of Olympic and Pico during rush hour.

The city also wants to time traffic signals to stay green longer so that traffic moves faster westbound on four miles of Olympic and eastbound on 5.5 miles of Pico, giving commuters an alternative to the busy Santa Monica Freeway, which runs roughly parallel.

The city had planned to start work on the project this week.

"This is a pretty clear ruling -- they have to start from scratch," said John Murdock, an attorney representing the Westwood South of Santa Monica Boulevard Homeowners Assn.

Environmental impact studies can take six months to a year to complete. The Los Angeles City Council also has the option to simply declare that the project would have no harmful effects. But that's a move that probably would invite more lawsuits.

Matt Szabo, a spokesman for the mayor, said the city would study the entire project, including re-striping both streets so that Olympic had more westbound lanes and Pico more eastbound. In court last week, attorneys for the city had said that option would not be pursued.

The debate over Olympic and Pico began last year when County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky proposed making them into almost one-way streets, which typically move traffic faster because it's easier to synchronize traffic signals. That idea was soundly rejected by Westside residents and merchants who said it would make it hard to get around.

In November, Villaraigosa and Councilman Jack Weiss announced their alternative Olympic-Pico initiative.

In February, the Greater West Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and the Westwood South homeowners group filed separate suits to block the mayor's plan. Several prominent homeowners groups threw financial support to the chamber suit.

Feeling heat from his own constituents, Councilman Herb Wesson promptly got his district -- east of Fairfax Avenue -- withdrawn from the plan. Officials in Beverly Hills wouldn't agree to the plan for a 1.5-mile stretch of Olympic that runs through that city.

Asked if putting more cars on city streets was a good way to revive neighborhoods, the city's planning chief, Gail Goldberg, said she wasn't consulted by the mayor. And after appearing with Villaraigosa at the news conference to announce the plan, Councilman Bill Rosendahl sided with his constituents west of the 405 and said the plan needed more study.

The city revised the plan on a couple of occasions, but Deputy Mayor of Transportation Jaime de la Vega, in a March memo, insisted no environmental review was needed.

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steve.hymon@latimes.com

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