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Tomorrow's Menu: Today's Traffic Jam

Congestion is everywhere in the South Bay--on the freeways, on arterial routes, even in neighborhoods. Motorists cannot help running into it. First of two parts. SUNDAY: Help is on the way for South Bay's beleaguered motorists, but for many it will be too little and too late.

December 26, 1985|GEORGE STEIN | Times Staff Writer

Right now, during the holiday season, traffic in the South Bay is at its worst.

The San Diego Freeway becomes a giant still life. Arterial roads flow like frozen molasses. Cars need three traffic lights to get through some intersections. Parking places are impossible to find. Tempers flare.

Get used to it.

Soon, according to gloomy official projections, such traffic jams will be the norm in the South Bay.

Consider this nightmarish forecast by Ed Nahabedian, the Caltrans Cassandra who has repeatedly warned of impending traffic doom:

Rush-hour grid lock. Intersection after intersection clogged with cars. Four-way rage as lights turn green but no one can move. A cacophony of commuters cursing, horns honking, brakes screeching. Catatonia on the freeways. Bedlam in the neighborhoods.

"Complete collapse. . . . You haven't seen anything yet," warned Nahabedian, who is Caltrans' traffic operations engineer for the South Bay.

Breakdown Predicted

"The holidays are an indication of what to expect as traffic increases because of development. This is a test to experience what will happen in a couple of years from now."

At some intersections, he said, "we are already seeing grid lock" at rush hour year-round. "(The system) will break down by 1987."

In city after city throughout the South Bay, planners are wrestling with traffic problems. They win few matches; they lose many.

The primary cause of the traffic upsurge is an explosion of real estate development, according to planners and transportation reports.

The boom, which stretches from Los Angeles International Airport to the Port of Los Angeles, poses the most fundamental dilemma for those trying to deal with traffic.

"Are we willing to kill off the golden goose?" asks James D. Ortner, the chief traffic analyst for the Automobile Club of Southern California. "You cannot have the best of both worlds. You cannot have development and no traffic."

$3.7 Billion Spent

Developers have poured more than $3.7 billion into the South Bay in the last five years and the pace is accelerating.

Many a solution somehow becomes a problem.

For example, the $1.6-billion Century Freeway and a $500-million transitway on the Harbor Freeway are expected to relieve congestion when they open in September, 1993.

But those massive projects will soak up almost all available transportation funding for 10 years, Caltrans says, leaving little for other projects in the area. What remains affordable will not keep pace. "We are running out of our little bag of tricks," said Torrance Transportation Director Arthur Horkay.

Another solution, the burgeoning van pool systems, have put more commuters in fewer vehicles, but at the same time their convenience has enabled people to live farther and farther away, spreading congestion to outlying counties with more affordable housing.

In some cities, such as Hermosa Beach, officials resist trying to ease traffic, arguing that making traffic flow more smoothly will not benefit city residents. In others, officials and residents complain that their neighbors' traffic problems have spread, dumping traffic across the city limits.

"You could be a hero if you could solve it," Hawthorne resident Don Breck told the City Council. He was complaining about commuters from neighboring El Segundo coursing through his Holly Glen neighborhood in an effort to avoid congested Rosecrans Avenue.

In response, Councilman Steve Andersen pointed up another aspect of the intractability of the problem: "There is a problem in adding lanes because you attract people."

Congestion is everywhere in the South Bay--on the freeways, on the arterial routes, even in neighborhoods. Motorists cannot help running into it. State and local officials have reams of data on it.

On the San Diego and Harbor freeways, the two Interstate highways traversing the South Bay, the periods of congestion are growing longer and the average speed is getting slower, according to state figures that confirm what every commuter knows all too well.

State traffic engineers have a method of measuring delays: the time lost traveling below 40 miles per hour on freeways.

When engineers applied it to the San Diego Freeway in 1984, they estimated that commuters daily lost 1.1 million minutes. Northbound speeds in the morning were below 20 miles per hour for two to three hours each day between the freeway's intersections with the Harbor Freeway and Manhattan Beach Boulevard. (Back in 1977, when state engineers measured speeds on the same section, they found cars moving faster, between 20 and 35 miles per hour at the busiest periods.)

The situation has turned this stretch of the freeway into an odd prospect for the morning motorist approaching it on Hawthorne Boulevard, where cars roll at a respectable 30 miles per hour between lights: Vehicles on the freeway at first seem frozen on the overpass. Closer to the highway, creeping movement--strangely out of sync, in slow motion--becomes apparent.

'It's Awful'

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