SMC — An unusual surge in enrollment at the local community college because of the economic downturn might be evident in not just the crowds on campus but the traffic off of it.

That’s what neighbors near Santa Monica College have seen in the first few weeks of classes, reportedly observing a higher volume of buses and cars on the road.

“I’ve been home from work the past few days and I have always known it’s bad from the past 10 years of living here but it’s not until you’re here all day that you see (the traffic) is amazing,” Jeff Bender, who lives on Pearl Street, said. “There’s a lot of traffic and I don’t see that SMC has done too much to mitigate any of it.”

SMC officials said recently that enrollment figures in the first few days of classes indicate that there are 8 percent more students this semester than the same time last year, a result of a combination of factors including an overflow of students denied from the tapped out University of California and California State University systems and an increase in the recently unemployed who want to return to school to add to their credentials.

But during an August Board of Trustees meeting, Dr. Chui Tsang, the superintendent and president of Santa Monica College, said that for the fall semester, there was a 24 percent increase in the number of applicants as of the end of July compared to 2008.

The college has taken steps to address the issue over the past several years, including entering a partnership with Big Blue Bus in which students and staff are allowed to ride any line at any time for free, and shuttling students between satellite lots and the main campus.

The college did respond to the anticipated influx of students and resulting congestion around the campus by instituting a plan for the start of the new semester, deploying traffic control officers and for the heaviest periods, stopping all vehicles exiting Structure 4 from entering the Business Loop, which is a paved small circle shared by both pedestrians and cars, sitting just next to the Santa Monica Swim Center and the Business Building.

Cutting off vehicle access to the Business Loop was expected to allow for an uninhibited flow of pedestrians in the crosswalks and decrease delays for vehicle traffic entering the campus from Pico Boulevard.

The Big Blue Bus on Monday began dispatching more buses on select routes that serve students of SMC, including the Line 7 and Rapid 7, both of which stop at the college. The increase in service will go for about another week.

About 35 percent of Big Blue Bus riders last year were students.

Students save an estimated $700 a year by riding the bus instead of driving to school, Linda Gamberg, spokeswoman for the Big Blue Bus, said, quoting estimates from Publictransportation.org.

While bus ridership is expected to increase, the number of parking permits purchased in the first few days of school have declined.

There were 234 permits sold from the Bursar’s Office on the first day of school, down from 255 on the first day in 2008 and 286 in 2007. The trend continues more dramatically on the second day — 422 sold this year, 531 in 2008 and 719 in 2007.

The figures don’t include the number of permits sold online.

“We do have a sense that overall the sale of parking permits and the number of permits is going down,” Bruce Smith, spokesman for SMC, said.

He said that it’s a combination of reasons, including increased ridership on the Big Blue Bus through “Any Line, Any Time,” and a similar hike in the number of students who park at the satellite lots.

Smith added that low-income students who received a tuition waiver now have to pay the full rate, possibly making parking permits unaffordable.

The Big Blue Bus has also resumed the regular school year schedule for the Sunset Ride, which will now run from 7 a.m. until 6:30 p.m., going very 15 minutes on Monday through Thursday and 20 minutes on Friday.

The agency drew fire from neighbors over the placement of the line’s stop in front of homes at 20th and Pearl streets, complaining of students gathering in large groups, littering cigarette butts on the sidewalk.

The Big Blue Bus has since moved the stop and altered the route so that its travel time on Pearl Street is minimized.

“We’re always concerned about the number of vehicles going through the neighborhood and we’re always trying to work on making sure the running buses are serving as many (riders) as possible and not running extraneous vehicles down the street,” Gamberg said. “The changes made with regard to the stop seemed to address primary concerns and have improved the relations with neighbors as well as the traffic flow.”

Bender, whose home was immediately next to one of the stops, said that the situation has improved but believes that the volume of bus traffic overall is still too high.

“The amount of buses is insane,” Bender said.

Sharon McGeeney, whose family has owned property on 20th Street since 1925, said that she believes that while bus traffic has cut down on her street, congestion overall around the college has gone up.

McGeeney, who attended SMC, wrote a letter to her neighbors regarding the situation on Wednesday, saying that it was impossible for her to walk the dog across 20th Street because there were cars going in all directions through the intersection.

“In addition, this morning I was late for an appointment because of having to sit and wait for traffic, and once I got going was almost hit by a car cutting through from an alley near 20th and Pico,” she said. “It is a maze of cars through the alleys and streets as far west as Cloverfield (Boulevard).

“What is going to happen when the other schools start session next week?”

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