On weekday mornings and on beach days, a torrent of traffic from the San Fernando Valley pours through the Malibu canyons, emptying onto Pacific Coast Highway. At such times, the locals speak wistfully of tollbooths.
They long for a guard and a gate, strategically placed at each through-road intersection with PCH to discourage, or even staunch, the flow of cars. As Joan Knapp, a 20-year Malibu resident, wished out loud recently: "Let's put in a little turnpike like they have in the East and charge those valley people to use our highway." She was only partly joking.
Tollbooths are just one of the solutions the state has considered in 20 years of studying PCH congestion in the Malibu area. There also has been talk of a parallel expressway through the mountains, a causeway in the ocean and a double-decker freeway where the road now runs.
But those schemes have been discarded while the residents, in classic Malibu fashion, learned to put up with what they cannot change.
Now, however, many are convinced that the time for mere coping has passed.
The fate of the coast highway has become a critical issue as state and local agencies shape Malibu's future, deciding on the general location and number of additional houses, hotels and restaurants--all of which would generate more traffic.
The stretch of PCH from the Santa Monica Freeway to the county line is the only direct link between Los Angeles and Malibu. The roadway passes through a storied Southern California landscape, filled with surfers, celebrities, sandy beaches and craggy mountains. As a result, it is used by the population of Malibu (about 20,000) as well as valley commuters who want to avoid the clogged Ventura Freeway, 13 miles to the north, and tourists from all over the Los Angeles Basin.
They must fit into two lanes in each direction along most of the route; at times even that space is narrowed by landslides or floods. And with geologically unstable cliffs on one side of the highway and expensive beachfront houses on the other, there is little room for widening.
If Los Angeles County's preliminary land-use plans are adopted, the California Department of Transportation foresees a 33% increase in traffic by the year 2000. Each day nearly 92,000 vehicles-- up from the current 69,000-- enough to justify building a freeway, would pass through the McClure Tunnel, where the Santa Monica Freeway and PCH meet. Morning and evening congestion would last two hours.
Caltrans officials say they are confident they can improve PCH to keep pace with development. But critics wonder if that is so. They claim that Caltrans has underestimated the amount of potential traffic under the county plan--and add that the method of improvement could cause as many problems as it solves.
The state Coastal Commission, state Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara), whose district includes Malibu, and the Malibu Township Council, a civic organization, have all asked Caltrans to reveal its specific intentions for PCH so that informed decisions can be made about how much future construction to allow.
"We want to know what they're going to do, exactly how they're going to do it, when they're going to do it and where the money will come from," said Madelyn Glickfeld, who chairs the township council's land-use committee.
Caltrans has other priorities, said Allan H. Hendrix, Caltrans deputy director for planning in Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties. There are other, more congested routes in the Los Angeles area that must be dealt with before PCH can be studied in detail, he said.
For those with concerns that Caltrans cannot improve PCH, "The only answer we've got is, 'We're sure we can do it, folks,' " Hendrix said. But, he added, "the solutions are going to have trade-offs and they're going to be very, very controversial."
At this point, Hendrix said, the most likely scenario is this: The highway will gain at least one other lane without taking up any more space.
And that means "we'll have to take parking" from alongside PCH, Hendrix said. "We'll probably have to take a lot of parking."
The prospect brings many coast highway residents and beach visitors from elsewhere into rare agreement. They object.
"I think that's ridiculous," said Bill Kay, a 29-year-old advertising copywriter who lives on PCH. He owns a Jeep, a Mustang and a Mercedes roadster; his apartment entitles him to just one space in a carport. He keeps two cars on the shoulder.
"That would be a disaster," said Sheila Gordon, a 24-year-old from Woodland Hills who comes to the beach every weekend. "It's bad enough already. During the summer, even the $3 lots are packed."
Caltrans has few other choices. High costs, the expectation of heavy environmental damage and public outcry doomed earlier, more ambitious plans.
Already, Caltrans has banned large trucks, except those making local deliveries or pick-ups, from PCH. And traffic flow has been eased by synchronizing stop signals.