By Rong-Gong Lin II

Battle brews over 405 widening projectResidents along the 405 are upset that homes may be lost and sound walls moved unnervingly close. Enter the lawyers.

As Caltrans moves to widen more freeways as part of a multibillion-dollar infrastructure campaign, road planners are facing an early challenge in tony neighborhoods on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley.

The California Department of Transportation wants to widen lanes on a 10-mile stretch of the 405 Freeway and add a northbound carpool lane through Brentwood, Bel-Air and Sherman Oaks as part of a much-anticipated effort to bring some relief to weary motorists.

The project would fill in the missing link in the San Diego Freeway’s carpool lane system, allowing ride-sharing motorists and buses access to a continuous lane on each side from Orange County through the Westside into the Valley. In February, local officials successfully pressured a state commission to allocate $730 million from a voter-approved bond issue, effectively giving the widening project a green light.

But the project has generated strong opposition from some residents — and created something of a test case as Caltrans embarks on new freeway-widening projects with the help of the bond measure.

The state Transportation Commission decided to provide $2.7 billion for expanding and improving Southern California freeways over the next few years. Besides the 405 project, Caltrans plans to widen the 5 Freeway in the Valley and southeast Los Angeles County. Road widenings are also slated for sections of the 57 and 91 freeways in northern Orange County, parts of the 91 and 215 in Riverside County and portions of the 10 and 215 in San Bernardino County.

Caltrans has bought about 10 homes in the Norwalk area, where the agency plans to replace a freeway overpass and add four lanes along the 5 north of the Orange County line, hoping to end a major traffic bottleneck.

More than 150 homes and more than 150 businesses would have to be acquired.

But the 405 widening has captured the most attention, in part because it affects wealthy neighborhoods where residents have the means to put up a good fight.

At issue is whether improving traffic flow is worth altering neighborhoods — by razing some homes and moving freeway sound walls closer to others.

“As we begin to enlarge our transportation capacity, that’s going to mean widening, maybe even double-decking. It’s going to mean a lot of things that people living near freeways aren’t going to like,” said David Fleming, a member of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board and chairman of the board of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.

If freeways aren’t widened, congestion will only worsen, said Ron Kosinski, Caltrans’ deputy district director for environmental planning in L.A. County.

“The reality in Southern California is we’ve been behind for many years on adding new lanes to freeways — and that hasn’t deterred people from driving or more people from coming to Southern California,” Kosinski said.

Without widening, traffic on the 405 Freeway, described as one of the worst in the nation, is forecast to increase 46% from 2005 to 2031.

Caltrans has not determined how many homes it will try to buy or take through eminent domain, and it is seeking public comment through late August on two options it has proposed in a draft environmental impact report.

One choice, costing about $649 million, would be to widen lanes on the northbound 405 and add the northbound carpool lane, requiring Caltrans to acquire fewer than 10 residential properties and portions of about 40.

The other option, about $911 million, would also add a regular southbound lane and widen all southbound lanes, but Caltrans says it would have to acquire an additional 30 residences. There is already a southbound carpool lane.

Some residents are hiring lawyers to fight any efforts to forcibly take their land.

“It’s going to be a nightmare. There must be a way to resolve this without such a devastating impact on the neighborhood,” said Jason D. Kogan, a member of the Brentwood Glen Assn. board.

Some residents say they don’t oppose adding the carpool lane, but find fault with widening lanes from 11 feet to 12 feet to conform to federal safety standards.

Caltrans found that the southbound 405 through the Sepulveda Pass has a higher rate of accidents than the statewide average.

But some officials say the needs of motorists should outweigh the needs of residents along the freeways.

“Let’s face it, you’re talking about a handful of people [versus] literally millions of motorists,” Fleming said. “In balancing the equities, it’s too bad that homes are being taken … [but] we have got to do something about this traffic congestion, because it affects so many people.”

Southern California transportation officials say that widening freeways and adding carpool lanes are critical to unclogging notoriously congested freeways.

More than 60% of voters in 2006 approved Proposition 1B, a $19.9-billion highway and mass transit bond measure that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger championed as critical for the state’s future.

Without freeway widening, officials fear, congestion will reach intolerable levels.

But some people who live next to the 405 say the cost of unfettered freeway expansion will tear apart tightly knit communities, and they fear the worst. Under one plan, Brentwood Glen, for instance, might lose a 60-year-old church, which also serves as a synagogue and neighborhood meeting place.

“It’s horrible. What will happen to our quality of life? The entire neighborhood will be destroyed,” Anita Johnson, a resident of Brentwood Glen, said recently while walking her two dogs, Yote and Zoe.

In Sherman Oaks, Wayne Williams worried about increased noise and street traffic should Caltrans begin tearing down homes just east of his residence.

“When is it going to be enough? Whose home is it going to be next?” said Williams, who prefers that Caltrans keep his neighborhood whole.

Other residents are upset that the freeway might creep closer to their homes and onto their property.

Some fear the prospect of sound walls being moved into their front lawns, backyards or even driveways.

“The wall would be a matter of feet away from our bedroom, dining room and kitchen,” said Joy Bergin, who lives in a Spanish-style home built in the 1920s.

At her neighbor’s house, the new freeway wall would be a few feet from the nursery of 5-month-old Adam Donaty.

“If there’s an accident two feet from my house, where’s the car going to go?” askeJohn Donaty, Adam’s father, who lives on Sherman Oaks Circle. “I’m sweating here.”

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