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2008 events lay groundwork for SoCal transit changes

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  • 12/31 Los Angeles Times
    Published Wednesday, December 31, 2008, by the Los Angeles Times Groundwork laid in 2008 for major transit changes in Southern California By Steve Hymon
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 31, 2008
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      Published Wednesday, December 31, 2008, by the Los Angeles Times

      Groundwork laid in 2008 for major transit changes in Southern
      California

      By Steve Hymon
      steve.hymon@...

      When it comes to improving the ways we get around the Southland,
      change usually occurs at a glacial pace.

      In one sense, that remains true at the end of 2008. There is little
      statistical evidence to suggest that any commuting patterns were
      seriously altered. Nor did any new roads or mass transit projects
      debut.

      Yet, 2008 was very eventful. The groundwork was laid for some dramatic
      developments that could come in future years, and transportation was
      often big news. Here, from my point of view, are the 10 most
      significant stories of the year:

      * A deadly Metrolink crash occurs in Chatsworth. The commuter rail
      agency suffered its third major crash with passenger fatalities in the
      last six years when a three-car train hit a Union Pacific freight
      train Sept. 12, killing 25 and injuring 135. The Metrolink engineer
      was text messaging in the moments before the crash and blew past a red
      signal light, although the train's conductor and three observers say
      the light appeared to be green. The collision remains under federal
      investigation, but it has already prompted a committee of experts to
      recommend that Metrolink place more emphasis on improving passenger
      safety.

      Another Metrolink train hit a freight train in Rialto in November --
      this time with only slight injuries to passengers. It remains to be
      seen whether Metrolink's board of directors -- most of whose members
      rarely ride the trains -- will implement true safety fixes in 2009.

      * Measure R passes in Los Angeles County. The Achilles heel of mass
      transit in L.A. County, the nation's most populous, has always been
      lack of money.

      Not anymore. The half-cent sales tax hike could provide $40 billion
      over its 30-year life span for a long, long list of projects that
      critics said were mostly designed to please the big city politicians
      who put the tax on the ballot. The story now is whether the
      Metropolitan Transportation Authority will stick with its spending
      plan and which road, rail and bus projects will get built first. The
      Expo Line and extension of the Gold Line look to have the edge. Of
      course, tax revenues will lag as long as the economy is headed
      downward.

      * The "subway to the sea" is reborn. This long-held dream to run a
      transit line from downtown Los Angeles to the city's heavily congested
      Westside didn't have one cent of funding until Measure R passed. Now
      it has $4.1 billion, plus any state, federal or private money that
      can be secured.

      The subway may also have a route. An MTA study this year determined
      that putting the line under Wilshire Boulevard -- with a swing south
      to Century City -- would result in the most ridership and that a
      second line from Hollywood to Beverly Hills via Santa Monica Boulevard
      could perform well.

      That line, however, still has no money.

      * A hands-free cellphone law goes into effect. Legislators guiding the
      state with the most cars in the nation overcame years of resistance
      from telephone manufacturers and made it illegal for drivers to hold
      cellphones to their ear. A first offense brings a $20 fine plus court
      fees that usually mean a ticket north of $70 in most parts of the
      state. On Jan. 1, text messaging while driving also becomes illegal.

      * Congestion pricing gets the nod. After New York City Mayor Michael
      Bloomberg met resistance to his plan to charge a toll to drive into
      lower Manhattan, Los Angeles secured $210 million from the federal
      government to convert the carpool lanes on parts of the 10 and 110
      freeways into toll lanes.

      The plan is still being shaped, and the tolls will probably be
      announced this spring. Also in the works is a plan to use some of the
      money to add an extra carpool lane on the 10 between the 605 and 710
      freeways, which means there would be more road space to potentially
      sell.

      If the toll lanes work and speed up traffic, it's going to be very
      tempting for officials to try this on other carpool lanes in the
      county.

      * O.C. toll road is rejected. After years of talk, studies, more talk
      and loooong public meetings, both the California Coastal Commission
      and the U.S. Department of Commerce gave a thumbs down to a plan to
      extend the 241 toll road through San Onofre State Beach. The project
      now appears dead, once and for all.

      * Gas prices go up -- then down. Four-dollar-a-gallon gas during the
      first part of the year inspired less driving, more use of mass
      transit, tanked SUV sales and "drill here, drill now" chants at the
      Republican National Convention. Then prices fell below $2 a gallon for
      regular, their lowest level since early 2005.

      * Obama is elected president. None of the many presidential candidates
      talked much about transportation. Obama did more than most and has
      given strong signals that he's ready to pump billions of dollars of
      federal money into road and transit projects after taking office Jan.
      20. We'll see.

      * Cyclists fight back. Cyclists have long complained that they get a
      raw deal on Southland roads. Then Dr. Christopher Thompson slammed
      on his brakes July 4, allegedly causing two cyclists to crash into
      his car in Mandeville Canyon and suffer significant injuries.

      But this time, with the cycling community in outrage, authorities
      responded. Thompson was charged with two felony counts of reckless
      driving and is awaiting arraignment Jan. 15 in Los Angeles County
      Superior Court.

      * High-speed rail bond passes. Voters agreed to issue up to $9.95
      billion in state bonds to begin planning for a bullet train that
      initially would run between Anaheim and San Francisco. The project
      will need billions more to actually get built, but if it does, 2008
      will be seen as the year things got rolling.
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