L.A. drivers get dangerously close to bus line

December 30, 2005|By MICHAEL MARTINEZ | MICHAEL MARTINEZ,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

LOS ANGELES -- Pity Richard Jajja. He's a bus driver in a land where car is king.

He is cruising on a new, sleek bus route - a $350 million, landscaped two-lane road, off-limits to any vehicles except double-long buses like his. But he says he feels he is just a moving target for the worst of L.A.'s motorists.

"I'll tell you this: You could put soldiers with machine guns at the intersections, and they won't stop people" from crashing into the buses, said Jajja, 58.

L.A. drivers' bad reputation has gotten uglier since the 14-mile bus lanes opened in the San Fernando Valley in late October.

The launch was greeted with much local fanfare about how the bus service is a harbinger of the future and only the second of its kind in the country after a line in Miami, which also had similar collisions in its early days.

But at a rate of almost one a week, motorists have been slamming into the 60-foot Metro Liners whenever the buses leave their exclusive road to cross one of 36 intersections.

Since the trial runs began on the former railroad line early in the fall, there have been at least eight accidents resulting in dozens of injured bus passengers being taken to hospitals in neck braces.

The city already known for road rage, high-speed police chases and an aversion to public transportation is now home to motorists who - while talking on their cell phones and running red lights - are crashing into buses described by a transportation authority official as the "most advanced transit vehicle in North America." At $633,000 each, a Metro Liner costs almost twice the price of a regular bus.

"It's just that L.A. is such a car-oriented culture that running a red light is a fact of life around here," said Kymberleigh Richards, 49, vice chairwoman of the San Fernando Valley Governance Council of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, who happened to be a passenger on Jajja's bus during a recent evening rush hour.

"Every single one of these accidents, it was the driver running the red light, not the bus," Los Angeles County Sheriff's Lt. John Baylis said. He added that at least four of the accidents involved motorists who were on their cell phones at the time of the accident.

In their defense, motorists and their advocates say that the new bus route sometimes intersects with public streets at oblique angles or clips closely to major intersections, creating confusion and difficult conditions for turning.

Motorists have demanded more warning signs as far as a block or two away because many people aren't aware that an abandoned rail line is now an active road.

Transit officials have beefed up signs and signals and are considering more improvements.

Even before the line officially opened, it seemed prone to accidents.

When Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and reporters rode one of the new buses during a publicity event before the launch, a motorist who ran a red light at one intersection forced the driver to stop drastically.

As the accidents have piled up, blame has between motorists and bus drivers, too.

"Oh, my goodness, we have to put a sign like the Target store on our bus. They are treating us like a target range," said Guingao Roldan, 56, an L.A. bus driver since 1990.

For their part, motorists contend that the silver buses, with their wind-swept profiles, are difficult to see.

The transit authority began installing strobe lights on the sides of the buses, but some critics say the buses need a color change.

Others have even demanded railroadlike crossing gates at the 36 intersections. But such a plan would cost $18 million and could worsen traffic congestion, officials said.

On a recent day, motorists passing the new bus line complained about hazards despite the improvements.

Directly in front of motorist Manuel Valle were seven sets of traffic lights, one for his turning lane; three "Do Not Enter" signs; one sign that flashed "bus" for an approaching Metro Liner; and a yellow caution sign.

"It's kind of confusing," said Valle, 18, who was about to make a left turn across the bus way.

A local businessman, Urbano Ramirez, 52, of Bob's Body and Fender Repair, says it is just a matter of time before someone is killed. He made that comment the day after a second accident occurred at an intersection adjacent to his shop.

"I'm telling people I'm going to see a fatality here. These buses do not slow down," Ramirez said.

Baylis, of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, said authorities are helping remind drivers of the new bus line. His agency has ticketed 600 motorists for moving violations involving the Orange Line, including 125 for running a red light and about 70 for failure to obey posted signs. Officials this month announced they would install cameras at 12 intersections to photograph red-light scofflaws.

Despite the accidents, most passengers rave about the new line, including its landscaping, which often makes the busway the only greenbelt in some parts of L.A.'s sprawl.

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