Sunday, December 12, 2004

Busway squeeze
Some fear MTA vehicles won't fit
By Lisa Mascaro - Staff Writer

As the $330 million Orange Line busway takes shape across the San Fernando Valley, many people have been wondering: How will two passing buses fit on the narrow concrete ribbon?

Residents simply cannot imagine two lumbering buses sharing a space that's only as wide as the average alley.

"It just has always puzzled me when I drive by it - that's not big enough for two buses," said Sherman Oaks resident Marion Sterry, who frequently drives by the Chandler Boulevard section of the 14-mile-long line.

"I even was tempted to stop and ask the workmen," she said. "It still looks like it's too narrow to me."

But Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials insist there will be plenty of room for buses going in opposite directions to get past each other. Once the stripes are painted for the 13-foot-wide lanes, they say, residents will be able to envision how the busway will operate.

"When you look down at it, it looks narrow," MTA construction manager Rick Thorpe said. "They just need to know there's plenty room for the buses. We've taken all of that into consideration."

The busway is being built on a former railroad right of way, which is 100 feet across in most areas. The busway itself takes up just 26 feet, with the rest of the land being used for bike and pedestrian paths, soundwalls, stations and other parts of the project.

The body of the specially designed and manufactured bus is 8“ feet wide, but the driver-side mirror extends 10 inches from the left, bringing the total width to 9 feet, 4 inches.

Because each bus will run about 12 inches from the curb, a total of 10 feet, 4 inches, is needed for each bus.

With two 13-foot-wide lanes forming the busway, that leaves a center clearance of 5 feet, 4 inches - about the arm span of the average American woman.

"It just seems like you don't have something for error," Sterry said. "It just looks so narrow to me from what I expected ... We can only just watch and see."

Buses will be running at 45 mph in most places, with some restrictions - up to 55 mph through the Sepulveda Basin, but slower, at 35 mph, on Chandler and in other places.

The issue came up earlier this month at the MTA's Valley Governance Council meeting, where Chairman Coby King pressed for an explanation.

"It doesn't look like two buses going very quickly have a lot of room to pass each other," he said at the time.

He said later that he's comfortable with the MTA's assessment.

"Without taking a tape measure myself to it, yeah, I have to believe them. It's not like they're not aware of the issue. It's something that's been raised many times.

"I'm cautiously optimistic. These guys have been planning it for a long time," he said. "Hopefully, they're doing it right."

At 13 feet each, the Orange Line's lanes will be slightly wider than traffic lanes on city streets, which are typically 10 feet wide and can be as broad as 12 feet when speeds of 45 mph or more are allowed. City alleys are about 24 feet wide.

Orange Line buses will run about every seven minutes during peak hours. Because the buses are in dedicated lanes, without other vehicles to contend with, the drivers will be able to stay on the lookout for oncoming buses.

"You're only dealing with that one vehicle at a time," said MTA spokesman Ed Scannell. "You're not going to be passing another kind of a vehicle every second as you will on a surface street."

The city Department of Transportation concedes that the busway lanes don't leave much leeway, but says they are a reasonable width.

"They don't have any extra fluff. I think it's kind of tight in that sense. But I think it's adequate for what they want to do," said James Okazaki, the agency's assistant general manager.

MTA said the 5-foot-4 clearance is the maximum, and could be more narrow if buses run farther from the curb. The busway also is just 25 feet as it passes under the San Diego Freeway.

Officials are now determining whether double yellow lines, Botts dots or other traffic-control devices should be used to guide the busway drivers.

Drivers' practice runs are expected to start in the spring, and drivers will take classroom courses before getting behind the wheel.

The MTA expects that its most-senior drivers, who get first priority on route choices under union rules, will be most likely to drive the new route.

"We're going to make it a safe operation and a good operation," said Gary Spivack, an MTA Valley division transportation manager.

County supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who has long supported the Orange Line through his district, said he's comfortable with the MTA calculations.

"I'm confident it's going to work out fine," said Yaroslavsky, also an MTA board member. "It looks narrow because the right of way is so wide ... Until you actually see the buses on the right of way, it will continue to look that way."


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