State Department of Transportation officials Friday abandoned a plan to create a "diamond lane" on the Ventura Freeway in the San Fernando Valley.
The decision was a sharp setback for state traffic planners, who regard diamond lanes, restricted to car pools and buses, as one of the most effective ways of increasing the carrying capacity of the region's freeway system at a time when highway construction funds cannot keep pace with congestion.
In Orange County, where local transportation officials recently voted to make the year-old car-pool lanes on the Costa Mesa Freeway permanent, critics of the special lanes said the Caltrans decision Friday encourages them to continue fighting.
"We're going to have a public meeting to talk about car-pool lanes on the evening of March 11 at the County Hall of Administration in Santa Ana," said Joe Catron, a car leasing executive and former race car driver who heads Drivers for Highway Safety, a small but vocal organization that opposes car-pool lanes. "We have not given up. We still believe the car-pool lanes on the Costa Mesa Freeway are as unsafe as ever."
Catron's group contends that barriers are needed to separate high-speed traffic using the car-pool lanes from adjacent, slower traffic that is changing lanes.
Bill Ward of Costa Mesa, one of the group's engineering analysts, was instrumental in persuading many members of the Ventura Freeway advisory committee to oppose the San Fernando Valley project or at least question the validity of Caltrans data, according to committee members.
On Friday, Catron blamed his group's failure to generate a similar response in Orange County on an inability to persuade any local politician to lead the opposition to the lanes. Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), a staunch opponent of car-pool lanes, helped lead the attack on the Ventura Freeway project.
The situation in Orange County may change, however. State Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim), who occasionally has expressed concern about the car-pool lanes on the Costa Mesa Freeway, is considering a tougher stance, according to Seymour's staff. The senator has scheduled a news conference about the special lanes for next week. He could not be reached for comment late Friday.
Despite Friday's decision on the Ventura Freeway project, Caltrans officials said they plan to continue pushing similar projects on other heavily congested Southern California freeways.
Three such lanes are in operation in Southern California, and Caltrans engineers have penciled in proposed diamond lanes on about a dozen other Southland freeways.
Donald L. Watson, Caltrans' Southern California district director, said widespread opposition from Valley residents and elected officials persuaded Caltrans to drop the plan for the Ventura Freeway, the nation's busiest with 270,000 vehicles daily.
"We have said all along we will not put in these lanes unless the community supports them," he said.
Continue in Strategy
However, because money for freeway expansion is lacking and because there is little room left in which to expand some freeways, Watson said, diamond lanes will continue as a "important element" of the department's strategy for "getting more people-moving capacity out of the existing system."
In the next few months, he said, Caltrans engineers will begin studying the feasibility of such a lane on the San Diego Freeway between the Ventura Freeway and the Orange County line.
Caltrans' policy on car pools and buses is echoed by the California Transportation Commission, which controls highway spending in the state.
Robert Remen, deputy executive director of the commission, whose nine members are appointed by Gov. George Deukmejian, said the commissioners unanimously voted in 1984 to direct Caltrans to "do a study every time a new lane is authorized as to whether it would be the best use of that lane to restrict it to car pools and buses."
Opponents of diamond lanes insist that the claimed benefits for the lanes are not proved and that the lanes discriminate against motorists for whom car-pooling is not practical.
Antonovich Is Opposed
Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, a leading opponent of the plan, said that Caltrans should have "learned its lesson with the Santa Monica Freeway (diamond lane) experiment, which nearly resulted in freeway gridlock and was blamed for a higher accident rate and headaches for commuters and law enforcement."
Watson agreed that the Ventura Freeway proposal "carried some unfortunate baggage" from the ill-fated Santa Monica Freeway lane, which was halted by court order after five months of operation in 1976.
However, he said, unlike that much-criticized project, diamond lanes currently in use and proposed will operate on new lanes because "we absolutely will never take another lane away from the public."
He predicted that as motorists are made aware that no existing lanes are being proposed as diamond lanes, "support for these lanes will increase."