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Joel Epstein Headshot

I'll Have a BRT With the Sepulveda Pass

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Imagine my delight earlier this week when a membership card arrived from the AARP with my name on it. Now a reduced fare Metro pass for seniors, that would have been something but I guess it wasn't in the cards.

Though I'm still licking my wounds from the AARP incident, my memory, happily, remains pretty good. Even at my advanced age I can still recall my grandfather's voice from the 1960s as if it were yesterday as he described the drive to our house from his apartment in the old country. He spoke a classic Brownsville Brooklynese, unsoftened by a law school education, prosperity and years away from the old neighborhood with the pushcarts near New Lots and Alabama Avenues. Arriving at our home, after making the drive from my grandparents', the first words out of his mouth were invariably, "The traffic was moida." It wasn't until I was older and had learned to drive that I realized the old man took a sort of perverse pleasure in regaling us with tales of his triumph over all of the lousy drivers out there.

Remembering him and that gravelly voice on a rainy LA weekend morning, I settled in at my kitchen table with the morning paper and a hot mug of tea. With prodigious amounts of rain pouring down it was a Snuggie, green jacket or famous blue raincoat sort of day, good for reading the paper and singing along to the lugubrious prose of Leonard Cohen, that icon of my youth and the bane of my pitch perfect wife's existence. She's out of the house this morning, so I'm living large. And if I take off my glasses and ignore the palm trees out my window I can pretend it's April and I'm in an old prewar Manhattan apartment with a storm noisily thrashing the fire escape outside and the radiators hissing away.

It's just those pesky op eds. The piece that's got me all hot and bothered this morning is Patt Morrison's Q & A with Michael Barbour in the Los Angeles Times.

Now at first blush as Barbour's an engineer who builds bridges and roads - infrastructure - for Metro his profile is just the sort of thing I could really sink my teeth into. The "I" word is usually like an aphrodisiac for me, but today it's just not doing it.

Don't get me wrong; Mike Barbour looks and sounds like a nice guy. In fact I like his candor in the piece about the time he spent in Iraq in 2003 working with the Iraqi Ministry of Construction. "...When you get to Iraq, you're dealing with the sheik and his tribe. I think the U.S. was somewhat arrogant - a lot of us in the West are, but we actually [had] good relationships with them." Refreshingly no bull, I'd say.

Along with the interview the LA Times ran a nice photo of the smiling builder holding a large Interstate 405 sign. It sure looks swell and even though the photo's in black and white I can clearly picture the red, white, and blue logo burned into my brain through countless trips on Big Government's ("Tax and Spend" is the Tea Party's moniker) interstate highway system. I hope when he retires Metro gives Barbour the conversation piece sign in lieu of a boring gold watch for his years of loyal service to the agency.

Well now that we've got straight that I'm not slamming Mike Barbour personally, let's get to what's bothering me.

You see Barbour's just getting started on construction of the last 10 miles of HOV lane on the northbound 405 through the Sepulveda Pass. For the uninitiated this will complete a carpool lane from the San Fernando Valley to the O.C. - Orange County, not the TV show.

Frankly, with the Skirball having cornered the market on concrete for its new parking garage, I'm surprised Metro was able to find enough of the stuff for the big project. Must be the slowdown in high-end apartment construction in Beijing has freed some up now that the Olympics have come and gone.

The Sepulveda Pass project is years overdue and will help reduce commute times on one of America's most congested freeways. And when I'm not riding the bus, biking, or walking I too am often enough on that freeway crawling along in my Scion xA, pinched between a Tarzana-bound Toyota Sequoia and a Palmdale-bound Lincoln Navigator.

Well every time I go over that damn Pass there's something missing for me. And that something is a light rail line running up the center divide of the freeway connecting the Valley's Orange Line Busway with the to-be-built Purple (Wilshire) and Expo lines, or even, perchance to dream, LAX. And if rail's truly not economically feasible, then I'll settle for one of those dedicated bus lines that have been demonstrating so much success for years now in Mexico City, Bogota and Curitiba, Brazil.

Curitiba's bus system was one of the first and is regarded as a model Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. The frequently arriving buses are considered reliable, and the generally well-designed stations are placed at convenient locations resulting in high ridership. Curitiba and other successful examples of BRT also benefit from subway system features like dedicated routes free of too many traffic signals and fare collection prior to boarding. If you've never ridden Metro's Orange Line (you should!) you'd be surprised to learn that LA already has a pretty successful example of BRT up and running, and expanding! There's even a late model articulated bus, the Metro Rapid 761, that runs from the Busway (in a convoluted way down Van Nuys Blvd and west along Ventura) to the 405 and on to the West Side. That's a good start, but the route leave something to be desired and challenges even the most patient of Metro riders. The answer is a dedicated rail or bus line that runs back and forth over the Pass unencumbered by the thousands of commuters and others who make the trip daily in largely single occupant vehicles.

According to Wikipedia which I regard after Jon Stewart and The Daily Show as America's best source of news and information, in Bogota passengers enter the TransMilenio BRT through elevated stations in the center of a main avenue, or "troncal" via a bridge over the street. The center lanes of the street are then dedicated to bus traffic.

Which brings me back to Mike Barbour in conversation with Pat Morrison. Even the beautiful view of the Verdugo Mountains on a clear day after a heavy winter rain isn't enough to salve the pain and disappointment I feel every time I reach Mulholland Drive, the crest of the pass, as I crawl along the 405 heading north.

Now I'm sure the plans are there somewhere at Metro's busy office but I've heard nary a peep lately out of them about connecting the Valley and the West Side via the Pass. [For a less Pollyanna view of BRT, skeptics and others may want to read, Curitiba's "Bus Rapid Transit" - How Applicable to Los Angeles and Other U.S. Cities? This thin critique from Light Rail Now, a website whose title gives away its perspective on mass transit, basically says the bus is OK but light rail is better.]

According to Metro, in addition to the 10-mile HOV lane extension the Pass construction project will replace the Skirball Center, Sunset Blvd and Mulholland Drive bridges; realign a couple of dozen off ramps, widen underpasses and build 18 miles of sound barriers and retaining walls making LA look even more like the border between San Diego and Tijuana. Admittedly the sound barriers will help those who didn't go deaf during construction enjoy their older and old age without the roar of traffic going by.

My concern is that with all that money and time going into planning and construction you can bet Metro and the taxpayer won't be too excited about tearing up the pavement to build BRT lanes and stations along a rejiggered 405. Alas, another missed mass transit opportunity for Los Angeles. Or maybe we can get involved and change fate. Please email me if you're up to the challenge.

In his old age my grandfather, who by then had developed an aversion to funerals that only rivaled his love of beating the traffic, was known to have had the following exchange with his sister-in-law upon the death of his brother.

Ruth: "Louis, I'm sorry to tell you your brother just died."

Grandpa: "I can't come to the funeral, I'm sicker than he is."

About mass transit in LA, like my grandfather, I just hope I'm not too old or sick to ride the BRT or light rail over the Sepulveda Pass when it's finally built. It's time we all got on that bus.