The shoveling of dirt by Los Angeles City officials and local community members to signify the start of a major improvement project for Sepulveda Boulevard in Westchester was a “long time coming” for some residents.

Local elected officials, led by City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, officially broke ground Thursday, July 26th, on the $11.6 million street improvement project for Sepulveda Boulevard during a ceremony along the major corridor, near Los Angeles International Airport.

The project, which will stretch from the Howard Hughes Parkway on the north to Lincoln Boulevard on the south, is expected to help relieve traffic congestion and beautify the Sepulveda Boulevard corridor in West- chester, officials said.

“This is a very historic day,” Rosendahl, who represents Westchester in the 11th Council District, said during the groundbreaking. “This project will not only improve traffic flow and beautify the Sepulveda corridor, but also improve the overall quality of life for residents, business owners, commuters and pedestrians.”

The first phase of the improvement project will convert the current two lanes in each direction in the business district from Manchester Avenue to 92nd Street into three lanes in both directions with metered street parking. Medians, turn lanes and left-turn traffic signals will be installed at specific parts of the boulevard to enhance motorist and pedestrian safety, city officials said.

The project will also include street lighting enhancements, sidewalk repairs and the planting of over 180 new trees along the corridor.

Construction began late last month and is expected to continue through summer 2009. Work is scheduled to take place weekdays from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. and two lanes in each direction will remain open during the construction, Rosendahl said.

During the holiday season, a construction moratorium will be enforced.

For residents of the Westchester community, the project to improve the stretch of Sepulveda was years in the making.

“I never thought this day would come,” said Westchester resident John Ruhlen, who also serves as president of the Westchester Streetscape Improvement Association.

Los Angeles Department of Transportation (DOT) officials first presented project plans to the community in 2001 at a town hall meeting attended by hundreds of Westchester residents. Plans involved expanding the stretch of Sepulveda to four lanes in each direction, a proposal that residents feared would turn the street into a “freeway.”

Determined to fight the proposal, residents formed a community group and worked with then-City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter to get City Council to pass a motion declaring its opposition to efforts to widen Sepulveda, leading to the DOT halting its plans.

The resident-based Sepulveda Boulevard Task Force, later renamed the Westchester Streetscape Improvement Association, was formed and helped get community input to modify the scope of the project.

Revised plans were presented to the community at a town hall meeting in 2002, when a majority of the attendees offered their support. Former City Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, who represented the community at the time, worked with the community and the streetscape association to refine the project design and address long-term goals for the corridor.

With the community’s vision for a Sepulveda improvement project finally starting this summer, residents who were involved in the effort said they were pleased to mark the occasion.

“It reflects community pride and what a community can do, not only in preserving the community but in working with different agencies,” said Westchester resident Sheila Mickelson, founder of the streetscape improvement association.

“Today is a day of good government and a day for not only the people of Westchester to be proud but the City of Los Angeles.”

Rosendahl noted that the project is an example of how officials can put together a better plan when they listen to the community. The councilman worked with the city Bureaus of Engineering and Street Services and the Department of Transportation to ensure that the project addressed the concerns of the community.

“If you listen to the people, you will be able to do a better job with your projects,” said Rosendahl.

Ruhlen said the street improvements for Sepulveda will give the community “the foundation to do great things in the business center.”

The project, as well as the creation of a business improvement district on Sepulveda, will help make one of the gateways to the city more appealing, Ruhlen said.

Residents are also hoping that Sepulveda will become more pedestrian-friendly thanks to the improvements, he said.

“It gives a whole new elevation to the community as far as the environment is concerned and appearance,” Ruhlen said of the project.

“We look forward to Sepulveda Boulevard living longer.”