After stormy debate over their safety and effectiveness, the Orange County Transportation Commission voted 5 to 2 Monday to make permanent the controversial car-pool lanes on the Costa Mesa Freeway.
"If we don't do something today, we could then be accused of doing nothing," said commission Chairman Harriett M. Wieder, referring to the congestion-plagued freeway.
Immediately after the meeting, critics of the experimental lanes' safety record and of Monday's vote vowed to consider legal action. Later, however, they said they would wait to see if planned improvements to the special lanes reduce freeway accidents.
Opened as an experiment in November, 1985, the car-pool lanes extend for 11.1 miles in both directions along the center median of the Costa Mesa (55) Freeway between the Riverside and San Diego freeways. The lanes are separated from the regular traffic by stripes on the pavement, and car-poolers (two or more occupants) may enter or exit at only a few spots along the route.
Monday's decision paves the way for the California Department of Transportation to begin a two-year, $800,000 effort to improve lane markings and signs, as well as entrance and exit zones, Caltrans officials said.
Despite Monday's vote, however, both Caltrans and the county commission retain the right to end the car-pool project at any time.
The OCTC conditioned its approval Monday on Caltrans' willingness to improve the car-pool lanes and to continue producing quarterly usage and safety reports on them.
Caltrans officials previously had agreed to abide by the commission's decision, although the agency has legal authority to build and operate the lanes without OCTC's permission.
Joe Catron, a former race car driver and co-founder of Drivers for Highway Safety, a grass-roots group opposed to the special lanes, said members will consider legal action to stop operation of the lanes. Catron charged that Caltrans "cooked" statistics to make the lanes' safety record and user numbers look good, a reference to disputes over the agency's research methods.
According to Catron, observers have produced vehicle counts in the car-pool and general-purpose lanes that differ markedly from Caltrans' statistics. But Catron admitted Monday that these observers have not come forward to present their findings.
On Monday, Caltrans officials strongly denied that they had changed data to improve the project's standing, and Catron later toned down his remarks.
Although he said Drivers for Highway Safety was "disappointed" by Monday's vote, Catron said, the group welcomes the OCTC's decision to require safety improvements to the lanes.
"We want to give the improvements a chance to see if the accident rate goes down," he said. "After that, we would consider a class-action lawsuit, perhaps based on the danger the lanes pose to the motoring public."
Oppose Special Lanes
Drivers for Highway Safety has opposed the special lanes from the start, arguing that there are no physical barriers separating the fast-moving car-poolers from slower moving traffic. The group also has questioned the accuracy of reports showing that large numbers of cars use the special lanes.
After a year of operation, Caltrans' data shows that 3,700 people use the car-pool lane during the rush hour, compared to 2,300 people traveling in a regular, general purpose freeway lane. Studies also show that they have helped commuters in regular lanes reduce travel times by an average of five minutes, with car-poolers saving an additional 10 minutes.
OCTC board members who voted Monday to make the car-pool lane a permanent feature were Wieder, Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, Tustin Councilman Richard B. Edgar, public representative James Roosevelt, and Brea Councilwoman Clarice Blamer. Supervisor Roger R. Stanton and Anaheim Councilman Irv Pickler remained unconvinced. Both argued unsuccessfully that the car-pool lanes should be converted to general use for several months to compare results.
About 50 people, or half the number that was anticipated, attended the lengthy hearing Monday. Catron blamed the low turnout on the commission's decision to hold the meeting on a weekday morning, when many working people could not attend. He sought to postpone a vote until a night meeting could be scheduled.
Bill Ward, spokesman for Drivers for Highway Safety, delivered petitions signed by more than 100 freeway users in support of such a postponement. But commissioners rejected the request, saying that opponents and proponents were well known and have had months to marshal their forces.
Of the 19 people to testify during Monday's two-hour hearing, 11 were opposed to the lanes, seven favored their retention, and one--an aide to state Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim)--said he was neutral on the subject.
Some Emotional Debate