Orange Line fight wastes time, money

Op-ed article, Daily News, August 26, 2004

Right now, in the vicinity of Chandler Boulevard, Citizens Organized for Smart Transit is celebrating "victory" over halting construction of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Metro Orange Line busway.

COST leaders Diana Lipari and Tom Rubin claim they have blocked the busway not because they don't want the project in their back yards (after all, being a NIMBY is nothing special anymore), but because the project is "a waste of taxpayer money."

Never mind that COST's lawsuit not only forces the expenditure of taxpayer money to respond to the group's charges in a courtroom, it has now caused the further waste of taxpayer money to close open trenches while the legal wrangling goes on. Then there are the expenses of reopening those trenches once COST has had its say and construction resumes.

Yes, I said "once construction resumes." Because regardless of whether or not COST gets its way and forces the MTA to produce another environmental impact report, the busway will eventually be completed.

To understand why that is a statement of fact and not just crystal-ball gazing, you must first understand exactly what COST is demanding -- and why that demand isn't reasonable.

The basis for the appellate court ruling that halted the busway project was that the MTA had failed to consider increased Metro Rapid bus service as an alternative to the busway. And, given the now-ubiquitous presence of red buses on Ventura and Van Nuys boulevards, it would seem a logical basis.

Logical, that is, until you realize that the draft EIR was released for comment in May of 2001, and Metro Rapid had only begun its experimental "demonstration project" operation the previous June. Is it reasonable to expect a large transit agency to consider, as an option to a major infrastructure project, a type of service that had operated for less than a year as a demonstration project?

The answer to that rhetorical question is obvious. Metro Rapid wasn't made an option in the EIR because it was still an unproven concept. And while it is easy for COST members to suggest in 2004 -- now that Metro Rapid has not only proved itself, but expanded to more than a half-dozen streets -- that it should have been considered, it is wrong.

Now let us assume that the court forces the MTA to reissue the EIR with the inclusion of a study on expansion of Metro Rapid service in the Valley. That would not be a waste of money, because that study could be referred to in the future for expansion of the service -- but the MTA's directors still would not be bound to choose that option (and no court could direct them to), so they would most likely rechoose the busway option, if for no other reason than that it is already partially completed.

In the meantime, what of the "smart transit" that is the second half of COST's name? The delay of the Orange Line doesn't just mean it will be longer until 60-foot buses run across the Valley on their own roadway; it means that service enhancements on the connecting north-south arterial streets will be delayed as well.

Metro San Fernando Valley was to be allocated additional service hours in the fiscal year 2005-06 budget to both operate the Orange Line and increase feeder service on high-ridership streets such as Van Nuys, Sepulveda, Reseda and Laurel Canyon boulevards and De Soto Avenue. Those are streets where, at times, the wait for a local Metro bus can seem forever -- even for someone like myself who both understands the service and uses that service on a daily basis. The advent of the Orange Line would have meant that there would be more frequent service on those streets next summer. Now, that, too, is in limbo.

I opposed the busway project when it was proposed. I remain convinced that light rail would be a better option, and as these legal battles go on, the price tag edges closer to what it would have been for a light-rail line. But I am also a realist, and I have an obligation to the public to make the Orange Line work the best it can and integrate our local service grid into its operation.

Too bad COST doesn't believe in reality checks.

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