Stepping up its offensive on the traffic snarls plaguing Los Angeles County, the California Highway Patrol on Thursday unveiled an ambitious six-month pilot program designed to alleviate congestion on the most troubled portions of the San Bernardino, Santa Ana and San Diego freeways.
Dubbed Operation CLEAR-- for Clearing Lanes Efficiently And Rapidly, the program will use specially trained teams of "congestion relief officers," CHP officers whose sole duty will be to patrol specific sections of the three freeways in search of stalled cars, debris and other traffic impediments.
The program, scheduled to begin Monday, will also use at least one helicopter and a fleet of tow trucks to find and remove obstructions.
And because the special squads will not issue tickets for most minor violations, CHP officials said they hoped the extra time will enable the agency to improve its response time to no more than 10 minutes.
CHP officials in Orange County said they would like to duplicate the Los Angeles pilot project but must await the Los Angeles results. CHP Officer Jill Angel in Los Angeles said Los Angeles was selected for the pilot project because it has the busiest freeways in the United States.
In Orange County, however, Caltrans intends to hire tow truck companies to remove stalled vehicles during the Santa Ana Freeway widening project, beginning this fall.
Although CHP spokesman Sgt. Michael H. Brey called the current response time for officers "anybody's guess at this point," he said the agency's tow trucks now take an average of 23 minutes to arrive at a trouble spot.
"Obviously, we must do more to identify traffic problems," Chief Edward Gomez, head of the Southern Division of the CHP, said at a press conference on Thursday. "(Traffic) is one of the biggest concerns affecting the quality of life in Southern California. . . . Frankly, I see this program being implemented in all major urban areas of the country. Right now, there is nothing like it."
Gomez said he could not estimate the cost of the program and said there is no specific timetable for expanding it to other parts of the state.
He said he was concerned that some motorists might try to take advantage of the fact that the "relief officers" will not write many tickets. But he emphasized that other CHP officers regularly assigned to patrol freeways will continue citing motorists.
Gomez called the program unique because "you have people dedicated to nothing but looking for items obstructing traffic." He said the program will use 30 to 35 CHP officers from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and from 2:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.
The officers will patrol the portion of the San Bernardino Freeway that stretches from the Long Beach Freeway to the San Gabriel River Freeway; the section of the Santa Ana Freeway that runs from the East Los Angeles interchange to the Indiana Street overpass, and a stretch of the San Diego Freeway that snakes from the southern part of the Harbor Freeway to the Marina Freeway.
The teams will receive help from the California Department of Transportation, which will continue its practice of patrolling the freeways and notifying the CHP of any impediments or hazards.
Gomez said that, in addition to the greater amount of time officers would spend patrolling the freeways, response time would be improved by the "visual support" the helicopter would provide. The tow trucks automatically will be dispatched with officers responding to calls.
"If a vehicle breaks down, we have in our plan the ability to traverse 30 miles of highway in minutes," Gomez said.
During traffic jams, the new "relief officers" will continue to use traditional methods of reaching trouble spots--patrol cars will ride along the shoulders of the freeways and motorcycles will weave through traffic, Brey said. But the addition of a helicopter and the emphasis on road hazards, rather than violators, would make the difference, he said.
Gomez, speaking outside Southern Division Headquarters, added that the CHP was soliciting motorists--particularly those with mobile phones--to help make the agency's efforts a success.
"We have had an emergence of cellular phones over the past few years," he said. "We're asking the public to use these to help us identify (problems). We're also asking individuals whose cars have mechanical problems not to pull into the center lane. Try to make it to the right shoulder."
Some CHP officers said they were confident the new program would be successful.
"From what I've heard of it, I think it'll work," Officer Warren A. Stanley said. "But it's going to take that and a lot more to solve some of the traffic problems around here."
However, the CHP's enthusiasm over the new program was lost on many Los Angeles County commuters, who registered mixed reactions to Operation CLEAR.
"I think (CHP officers) screw up the freeways enough," said Robert Fowler, 31, a Los Angeles resident who services elevators. "Every time something happens, they slow things down. Traffic is just going to get worse."
Other Los Angeles motorists agreed.
"I don't think the program will have much impact," said Gerald Collins, 35, a banker who works downtown.
Times staff writer Jeffrey A. Perlman in Orange County also contributed to this report.