It's been crowned the world's busiest thoroughfare, but the Ventura Freeway is anything but a showpiece.
Long sections of its pavement in the San Fernando Valley are crumbling and, in some places, it has no inside or outside shoulder.
Its width varies inexplicably from three to five lanes, creating a series of nerve-rattling bottlenecks that slow traffic to a crawl, then speed it up again. Even on a good day, the freeway has eight hours of rush-hour congestion.
The state Department of Transportation says everything is going to get better.
But, first, things are going to get worse. For about four years.
Starting in December, Caltrans plans a $90-million make-over on venerable U.S. 101.
Before the end of 1991, four major expansion and rehabilitation projects are to be completed along the freeway between Thousand Oaks and Universal City, a distance of 24 miles.
After the last anguished cries of construction-stalled motorists die down, there will be four lanes each way from Thousand Oaks to Woodland Hills and five each way from there to the Hollywood Freeway.
Highway engineers say that should be enough lanes in the right places to smoothly handle the Valley's ever-growing traffic volume, at least for a year or two.
It is by chance, not choice, that all the construction is occurring at about the same time.
The projects became bunched up after some of them were delayed by years of wrangling over financing and especially over whether the freeway should have a "diamond" lane, restricted to car pools and buses. It won't have such a lane.
"It was never planned that all these projects would come together as they have," said Jack Hallin, Caltrans' project development chief for Southern California. "But it's not so terrible that they have come together. At least we'll get it all over with."
The schedule for the work:
A $20.4-million project will begin in December to add a fourth lane in each direction from Topanga Canyon Boulevard to Valley Circle Boulevard. This will eliminate the infamous "Woodland Hills bottleneck," a two-mile stretch of freeway with three lanes in each direction.
In the same year-and-a-half period, Caltrans will add a fifth lane westbound on the Ventura Freeway between Topanga Canyon Boulevard and White Oak Avenue. It also will replace scattered segments of broken pavement, most notably on bumpy Chalk Hill, immediately east of Winnetka Avenue.
While that work is under way, Caltrans will repave a nine-mile section of the freeway between Las Virgenes Road in Calabasas and Hampshire Road in Thousand Oaks.
That $15-million project, which will not enlarge the freeway's capacity of four lanes each way, is to be started in the spring and finished by the end of 1988.
Five inches of asphalt are to be put over the existing concrete, which Caltrans says is rapidly and unexpectedly breaking up because rock with an unusually high acid content was used when the freeway was paved in the early 1970s.
Beginning late in 1988, work will begin on completing the expansion of the Ventura Freeway to five lanes each way from Topanga Canyon Boulevard to the Hollywood Freeway. About one-third of the distance has been five lanes since the early 1970s, contributing greatly to the freeway's patchwork feeling.
That $22-million, 16-month project is likely to affect more motorists than all the other construction combined, Caltrans planners say.
It will tie up traffic on the most heavily traveled segment of freeway in the nation, a dubious accolade the Ventura earns by carrying an average of 270,000 cars per weekday at its intersection with Hayvenhurst Avenue in Encino.
Included in the major widening will be expansion of the Hollywood Freeway from the Ventura south to the Los Angeles River, a distance of about one mile.
As with the new lanes in the Woodland Hills bottleneck, the new fifth lanes will be secured by narrowing the existing 12-foot-wide lanes to 11 feet and taking seven of the 10 feet from the median shoulder.
The same configuration--narrow lanes with no median--has been in use for more than a decade on the freeway between White Oak and Van Nuys Boulevard and elsewhere in Southern California.
The final project, and also the costliest, will be expansion of the freeway intersection at Valley Circle Boulevard-Mulholland Drive in Woodland Hills.
Enlargement of the underdeveloped intersection, long a nettlesome choke point at the western end of the Woodland Hills bottleneck, is expected to cost $30 million. It is scheduled to begin in two years and be finished in late 1991.
Design work is not completed on the project, but it won a place on Caltrans' schedule by dint of persistent lobbying from local elected officials who argued that all the Ventura Freeway projects should be done at once to avoid dragging out the agony.
At the June meeting of the California Transportation Commission, which controls state highway spending, the all-at-once argument proved to be persuasive where arguments based on congestion had failed consistently over the years.