After years of delays and a bitter debate over a car pool lane, work is about to begin on a $90-million make-over of the nation's busiest thoroughfare.
On Wednesday, workers will begin synchronizing traffic lights on streets adjacent to the venerable Ventura Freeway in Woodland Hills--the initial step in the first of four major expansion and rehabilitation projects that will be undertaken on the freeway over the next five years between Thousand Oaks and Universal City, a distance of 24 miles.
The work gets under way with one key issue unresolved--whether one of the proposed lanes will be a "diamond lane," restricted to car pools and buses--and amid fears that construction will make movement even more difficult in a corridor with few good alternative routes.
In recent months, half a dozen people have called her office in near-panic over the onset of construction, said Karyn Foley, a broker with Fred Sands Realtors in Woodland Hills.
"They said, 'I'm getting out of here. I'm worried,' " she said.
"We'll come back in five years when the project's done," said Donald L. Like, explaining why he and his wife, Marvene, are temporarily forsaking their Oxnard beach home for a Sherman Oaks condominium.
The state Department of Transportation scoffs at such gloomy predictions. Noting there will be bypass routes and that all work on the pavement will be done at night, officials predict that congestion will be no worse during construction than at present.
Said Thomas Conner, principal transportation engineer with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation: "A lot of us in the transportation field who have studied their (Caltrans') plans feel they should meet their goal."
While there is disagreement on the effect of construction, all agree on one point: In recent years the Ventura Freeway in the San Fernando Valley has slowly succumbed to congestion.
Even on a good day, the freeway has eight hours of extreme congestion. So many motorists take pains to avoid it that spillover traffic is blamed for jamming up nearby surface streets and even Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu.
When the last of the new concrete is ready for traffic in 1993, there will be eight lanes of freeway from the fast-growing suburban community of Thousand Oaks to Woodland Hills and 10 lanes from there to the Hollywood Freeway.
And the freeway's seemingly arbitrary variations in width, a major cause of rush-hour headaches, should be no more than a disagreeable memory.
At present, inbound from Calabasas the 101 Freeway shrinks from eight lanes to six lanes, then expands to eight lanes and then grows again to 10 lanes near its juncture with the San Diego Freeway. Then it contracts to eight lanes again and finally, at the Hollywood Freeway, opens back up to 10 lanes.
In the resulting bottlenecks, dismayed motorists are forced to slow to a crawl, then accelerate, then reduce speed again.
Even though the bottlenecks will soon be eliminated, traffic planners are not optimistic about U.S. 101's future.
They predict that upon completion of the make-over, there will be enough lanes in the right places to accommodate the Valley's growing traffic volume for no more than a year or two.
After that, residential and commercial growth, especially in nearby Ventura County communities, should bring a return of congestion.
In fact, a Southern California Assn. of Governments traffic study committee recently recommended that planning begin as soon as possible on a double deck for the Ventura Freeway from Woodland Hills to the Hollywood Freeway, then south through Cahuenga Pass to downtown.
The committee, created by the Legislature in response to a 1983 study indicating that the Valley faces the worst congestion of any area in Southern California, urged that the upper deck be a toll road with limited on- and off-ramps, and that it also carry a light-rail line.
Caltrans has the matter under study.
The four projects:
- Widening of the infamous "Woodland Hills bottleneck," a two-mile stretch of six-lane freeway bracketed at both ends by eight lanes of freeway. The $20.4-million project, which begins Wednesday, will include one new lane in each direction.
As with most other freeway widenings in crowded Southern California, Caltrans will secure these and other new lanes on 101 by narrowing existing lanes and taking 7 of the 10 feet from the inside shoulder.
- At about the midpoint of the Woodland Hills widening, Caltrans said, it will contract to repave a 9-mile section of the freeway between Calabasas and Thousand Oaks.
- If the diamond lane debate is resolved, Caltrans expects work to begin work early next year on widening the freeway to 10 lanes from Woodland Hills to Universal City.
Contributing to the freeway's patchwork reputation, about one-third of this 13-mile stretch has been 10 lanes for more than a decade, while the remainder has been a traffic-choked eight lanes.