As more commuters add to Pacific Coast Highway congestion, Caltrans is seeking ways to handle the additional traffic expected from development under the coastal land-use plan and growth in other areas.
Every morning, the mist-enshrouded silence in Malibu gives way to rumbling engines and beeping horns as 2,200 cars converge on Pacific Coast Highway and begin the rush-hour crawl southward.
By the time the slow-moving mass reaches Topanga Canyon Boulevard, another 1,100 cars--mostly San Fernando Valley commuters bound for Los Angeles--join in. Before the morning rush ends, 5,000 cars have snaked slowly through the intersection at Sunset Boulevard.
Because there is nowhere else for the traffic to go, fender-benders at rush-hour or minor landslides from the cliffs above the highway can take on disastrous proportions. Even the switch to daylight-saving time each spring disrupts the highway's fragile balance as the sun, suddenly higher in the sky, glares into the eyes of drivers.
Squinting motorists hang back a few extra feet, creating "a huge slowdown" on the narrow highway, said Paul Prater, a Caltrans traffic engineer. But like clockwork, frustrated commuters call Caltrans, convinced that the traffic signals are broken or that thousands more cars have mysteriously appeared on PCH.
The PCH bottleneck is nothing new. What is new is the dramatic increase in Malibu commuter traffic from the western San Fernando Valley and Ventura County. Coupled with modest but steady local growth, outside development has sent traffic levels skyrocketing on Kanan Dume Road, Malibu Canyon Road, Topanga Canyon Boulevard and PCH in just the last few years.
"We've got stop-and-go here in Malibu, where a few years back there was none," said Craig Klein, spokesman for the California Highway Patrol's Malibu station. "On PCH north of Topanga Canyon Boulevard, the morning backup has more than doubled since I got here in 1984."
Weekday congestion, once limited to the tourist season, is so severe that the California Coastal Commission late last year approved a sweeping land-use plan--a blueprint for controlled growth in Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains. Among other things, the plan limits the number of new homes allowed in Malibu to 2,110 until PCH is expanded.
In the past five years, traffic growth in Malibu has outstripped official forecasts, sending planners scrambling for a way to address it, and touching off a cacophony of complaints from residents.
In 1982, Caltrans predicted that by the year 2000 more than 50,000 cars a day would use some parts of PCH between Civic Center Way and Sunset Boulevard. But traffic has already overtaken the forecast, reaching 53,000 cars per day just south of Topanga Canyon Boulevard in 1985.
"Everyone was wrong about how far people would drive in order to afford a home and still work in Los Angeles," said county planner Ray Ristic.
"And now all those people from Ventura County and the West Valley are looking for a way to trim their driving time, and an awful lot of them are picking PCH instead of the Ventura Freeway."
County planner Bob Hoie said that after hearing a lot of stories about the new congestion, he decided to take a look.
"I must have a death wish or something, but I went out there about 7 a.m. and headed into town on Topanga Canyon Boulevard," Hoie said.
"I found that if you're backed up two miles on Topanga, it takes you 18 minutes to get through the light and onto PCH."
By the time the cars at the back of the line clear the signal, Hoie said, "the stress has just driven them crazy."
"Eighteen minutes is a real long time, but I'm sure if you asked the motorists how long they waited at that intersection, people would say 'Oh, it had to be a half-hour or 45 minutes,' " he said.
On another trip, driving south on PCH, Hoie said he was moving "about as fast as I wanted at Big Rock, but all of a sudden it just came to a death stop and it stayed that way to Topanga. What I'm trying to figure out is, how in the world can people put up with this, do it every day?"
'Can of Worms'
Despite the growing pressure to solve traffic problems, any attempt to expand the coast highway will be "a real can of worms," said Jerry Baxter, deputy district director of Caltrans in Los Angeles.
For years, Caltrans has sought a way to widen the road, which is hemmed in by houses and the beach on one side, and unstable hillsides on the other side that can send tons of rock and dirt tumbling across the asphalt if disturbed.
During the 1970s, when some planners still envisioned Malibu as a bustling resort town filled with condominiums, chain restaurants and big hotels, planners talked of building a second highway along the coast.
Those proposals, now viewed by most planners as nearly impossible financially and environmentally, included building an elevated freeway over the Pacific Ocean. Another plan would have cut the tops off the pristine mountains and filled up adjoining canyons, flattening the foothills for an inland freeway.