A proposed busway continued to spark fierce debate during two public hearings held in the San Fernando Valley during the last weeks of June.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is in the final stages of gathering public commentary on the proposed San Fernando Valley East-West Transit Corridor, a dedicated busway that would run from Warner Center in Woodland Hills to the Metro Red Line subway station in North Hollywood. The busway would make use of the old Southern Pacific railroad right of way, part of which runs through quiet residential neighborhoods in Tarzana, Valley Glen and North Hollywood, affecting the area around Chandler Boulevard.
As part of the public commentary process, the MTA held two hearings on this side of the hill, one at Pierce College and one at Valley College. As expected, both meetings attracted many members of the Concerned Citizens Transit Coalition (CCTC), which represents the North Hollywood Orthodox community and others opposed to the use of Chandler Boulevard (and, in some cases, the Lankershim/Oxnard proposed alternative) for the busway. It also attracted supporters, including business groups, bicyclists, the elderly and students.
Opposition wasn't limited to the Orthodox, but included a number of people from other areas along the route who also opposed the use of the old railroad right of way to create what some called a "freeway for buses."
"They keep referring to it as a transit corridor. It is not a corridor, it is a highway," said Diana Lipari, the founder of Citizens Organized for Smart Transit.
The majority of opponents felt the busway was an inadequate solution to the Valley's traffic problems.
"The MTA is giving us a Band-Aid when what we need is a tourniquet. We need a subway," said one man, to whom the audience responded with loud applause.
Members of the CCTC reiterated their concerns about the safety of the busway.
"This is not a project, this is not a job, this is a community we're talking about," said a member of Shaarey Zedek synagogue and father of six. "Children are not acceptable collateral damage because we need a busway."
Prominent local rabbis -- including Rabbi Aron Tendler of Shaarey Zedek and Rabbi Avrohom Stulberger of Valley Torah High School -- made impassioned pleas to the MTA Board of Directors to consider the human factor in their decision.
"How could consideration even be given to a plan that would split a community?" Stulberger asked. "It's unthinkable to me."
Supporters of the proposed busway were fewer but just as determined to voice their concerns. Most were commuters from both ends of the San Fernando Valley who, although they too would have preferred a subway, felt any improvements in mass transit were better than the status quo. Some of the commuters are also devoted bike riders out to lend their support to a proposed bike path that would run along the right of way concurrently with the busway. Although not a guaranteed part of the Transit Corridor project, the City of Los Angeles Department of Transportation and the MTA are coordinating to secure funding for a bike path, according to an MTA fact sheet.
"The community of bike riders is also a community and needs to be considered in this [debate]," said Dr. Gil Solomon, a family practice physician. Solomon, 49, grew up in North Hollywood and has been a bus rider on and off since 1969. He currently rides his bike across the Valley to the MTA Red Line station and in a later interview outlined why he supports the transit corridor.
"I ride my bike to the Metro Link station and take the train. It takes me about 15 minutes longer than if I had to drive at that time of day, but 30 minutes of it are spent sitting down on the train," he said.
Solomon said he appreciates the concerns of the Chandler Boulevard residents but feels they are overlooking the safety issues caused by heavy traffic on Valley streets that might be mitigated by the busway.
"They are concerned about saving lives, and by Jewish law that supersedes everything else," he said. "No one disagrees that if you put a bus through the middle of a street you are putting lives at risk. But there are other lives at risk out there. I was almost run over by cars twice last year when I was on my bike. Talk to any person who bikes every day in traffic, and they will tell you [stories] of what happens on the road. There are kids in my neighborhood who would be able to use a bikeway instead of riding in the street. If you look at the potential of putting in a busway and also possibly a bike path, I believe you will see less injuries and possibly [fewer] deaths."
Following the meeting at Pierce, a second public hearing was held June 26 at Valley College. This hearing was much larger, attracting about 400 people, and decidedly more heated. Residents of Oxnard Street, stung that the Chandler group was pushing the Lankershim/Oxnard alternative at their expense, struck back with a vengeance.
"Shame on you," said one woman to the Chandler group. The right of way "is not your private property," she said.
Another resident, Nicholas Cruz, talked about how the heavy traffic on Oxnard already made it impossible for his young son to enjoy playing in their home's front yard. He hinted that the residents of the Chandler area saw buses only as a method of bringing "maids and gardeners" into the area.
"This is a changing community. You have to give and take. We've given enough on Oxnard, (now) we need a bus route on Chandler," Cruz said.
Many in the Chandler group were taken aback by the remarks from their North Hollywood neighbors, enough to change their pre-printed signs from "No Bus on Chandler" to "No Bus on Chandler And Oxnard." Some pleaded with the crowd not to let the issue divide their two communities; others directed their anger at the MTA, accusing the transit agency of purposefully pitting one community against another to achieve its goals.
"I think there's been a delayed reaction to the feelings of Oxnard residents," said Mark Hurwitz, an attorney who lives close to Oxnard but attends services at Shaarey Zedek on Chandler. "We really haven't heard any voices of opposition from Orthodox Jews along Oxnard, even though there are synagogues near there like Adat Yeshurun."
In reality, opponents of the Lankershim/Oxnard alternative probably have little to worry about. As MTA official and East-West Transit Corridor project manager Kevin Michel made clear in his opening remarks at both public hearings, the Chandler Boulevard right of way is the preferred route for the busway (see sidebar).
A vote on the East-West Transit Corridor could be made as early as the July 26 meeting of the MTA Board of Directors. However, that meeting is the first that Mayor James Hahn and his three appointees will attend, the vote may be delayed. Michel urged interested parties to monitor the MTA's Web site (www.mta.net) for updates.
Residents around Chandler Boulevard said they would continue to fight the busway, up to and even after the MTA vote.