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Is east-west divide real on Measure R?

Drivers in both areas share concerns about traffic and mixed feelings about the half-cent sales tax hike.

November 01, 2008|Steve Hymon and Carla Hall | Hymon and Hall are Times staff writers.

In a region where traffic is an all-consuming complaint, a half-cent sales tax increase to improve traffic flow might seem like a sure thing.

But in the final weeks before Tuesday's election, the Measure R campaign has devolved largely into a regional clash between politicians on the east and west sides of Los Angeles County, as squabbles have broken out over who gets the most projects.

Many elected officials from the San Gabriel Valley are lining up against the tax hike, fearing much tax money would go to the Westside's "Subway to the Sea" and not enough to their own needs. Officials on the Westside are backing Measure R, saying it is the best shot at improving the region's notorious traffic.

But among commuters, there appears much less of an east-west divide and a more nuanced view of Measure R. Traffic is miserable everywhere, they say, and everyone has a horror story. Although many are skeptical that Measure R will help their commutes -- maybe their children's one day -- others say they will vote for anything that may reduce traffic congestion.

"I like the idea of a subway, but I probably won't use it because I drive," said Westside legal secretary Sandra Spiegel, who already voted for Measure R on her mail-in ballot.

And she's dubious about things getting much better. On Wednesday, she left her home in the San Fernando Valley at 8:30 a.m. and arrived at her Wilshire Boulevard office at 9:30 a.m. She doesn't even try to fight her way home during rush hour. "I work late because I don't want to be in traffic," Spiegel said.

Despite the widely held view that the Westside has the county's worst gridlock, traffic statistics from the California Department of Transportation and the Freeway Performance Measurement System at UC Berkeley suggest that drivers on the east side of town aren't doing much better.

Although parts of the 10 and 405 freeways carry more than 300,000 vehicles daily -- a very high load -- so does the 210 Freeway in Pasadena. And in the last two months, the two freeway bottlenecks where motorists experienced the worst delays during the morning commute were in the San Gabriel Valley, on the 10 and 210.

Ranked four and five on the list: the westbound 10 at Robertson and La Cienega boulevards, respectively.

Measure R has generated much excitement on the Westside because it is considered the first concrete funding step for a Wilshire Boulevard subway, which for decades has been the Holy Grail for those trying to reduce congestion.

The subway could get $4.1 billion from the ballot item. That makes the proposal the largest Measure R project, with the subway possibly accounting for 10% or more of the funds that the sales tax is expected to raise over its 30-year life span.

That has led critics to say that Measure R is a thinly disguised plan by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to secure subway funding at the expense of everyone else.

Some San Gabriel Valley officials are upset that an extension of the Gold Line from Pasadena was denied $80 million in seed money this summer by the Villaraigosa-led board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Measure R provides $735 million for the project, but backers say it is not enough for the line to reach Montclair -- their goal -- and they don't believe they will get the money anyway.

"We're like the bologna in the bread here," said Claremont Mayor Ellen Taylor, meaning her city is being squeezed between traffic from the Inland Empire and the Los Angeles Basin.

Echoing a familiar complaint from Westside residents, she said she rarely travels to downtown Los Angeles to go to the theater because of the congested roads.

The subway has become such a lightning rod that it has been almost completely absent from the campaign for Measure R. None of the five TV ads for the measure mentions the subway, although the largest donor to the Measure R campaign is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wilshire Boulevard, which has given $900,000 precisely because the subway extension would give patrons a way to get there by rail.

Still, the mayor and other officials on the Westside have argued that Measure R fairly spreads the money around and cite a long list of projects the item would fund outside the city of Los Angeles. But Measure R proponents also say it makes sense to build big transit projects where traffic is the worst and ridership will probably be the greatest.

"This is a comprehensive effort to address L.A. County's traffic congestion," Villaraigosa said in a recent interview, mentioning several projects. "There are a lot of reasons that people will support this."

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