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A Driven Woman : Adriana Gianturco fought a lonely battle for car-pool lanes in 1976. Now, they're a part of the L.A. map.

February 22, 1994|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The whole city, it seemed, hated her.

Drivers cursed her every day as they sat without moving on the Santa Monica Freeway, while she told them on the radio that they were zipping along just swell.

Some politicians still sputter at the mention of her name. "A woman so arrogant that she tried to tell us it was midnight when we could see with our eyes it was high noon," Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky says now, still irritated in retrospect. "In my 18 years of public office, she got my juices going in a way nobody else has been able to do."

Maybe so. But Adriana Gianturco's big problem, it appears now, was simply that she was two decades ahead of her time.

The year was 1976. A new governor, Jerry Brown, had appointed a new director of the California Department of Transportation. Gianturco seemed a good bet for the job: She was educated at Smith College, UC Berkeley and Harvard graduate school, with jobs in urban planning and transportation under her belt.

Within days of taking office, however, Gianturco, then 36, was, in her own words, "besieged, vilified, crucified."

Her operatic name was transposed to epithet: Giant Turkey, the Madwoman of Caltrans, Our Lady of the Diamond Lane. "The insults didn't stop," she recalls.

Neither did the hate mail, obscene phone calls or death threats. "We had to check all packages for bombs," she remembers, "because the insanity got so out of hand." And for good reason, many citizens believed.

Popular opinion had it that Gianturco single-handedly, on a sunny mid-March day, rode into town from Sacramento and closed the fast lanes of the Santa Monica Freeway to all cars but those containing multiple occupants.

It was she, legend went, who christened the diamond lane, who decided that it would be for car-poolers only, who refused to acknowledge that the plan didn't work--and who watched while the remaining three lanes of the Santa Monica became so clogged that citizens imagined that they could walk to work faster than they could get there on the freeway.

It was the first time in L.A.'s memory that basic freeway freedoms had been tampered with. Many drivers refused to comply with the car-pool rule, weaving in and out of the forbidden lane just long enough to make progress, but fast enough to avoid police, who had been ordered to give hefty tickets.

Anyone who didn't obey the edict could answer in court, Gianturco said over and over again in her clipped Back Bay accent, during what seemed a nonstop barrage of public appearances that assumed the character of scoldings.

After five months, when the entire city seemed enraged at Gianturco's brazenness, Yaroslavsky became the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit that put an end to the diamond lane--and to the controversy. Drivers had won their four lanes back. Gianturco had lost her idealism.

"By the way," Yaroslavsky asked last week, his voice softening in what seemed to be genuine concern: "Whatever happened to Adriana? Did she settle into a good job somewhere?"

*

It's worth asking, because the idea against which so many citizens fought--and for which Gianturco was willing to risk her career--has since been accepted. Even Yaroslavsky says he never was opposed to the concept of diamond lanes--just the way they were imposed autocratically on drivers.

Within the past six months, Los Angeles County has created 130 miles of car-pool-only freeway lanes (not including those installed since the earthquake on, ironically, the Santa Monica Freeway). Orange County has 110 miles; Riverside County has 35.

Caltrans projects that by 1998, Southern California will have more than 600 freeway miles reserved for high-occupancy vehicles (HOVs). The diamond-lane name is no longer used, a Caltrans official says, "because Gianturco's impact was so negative and so great that we do not want to use the diamond-lane designation that's still associated with her."

In fact, says another official, who also asked not to be named, diamond lanes had grown so unpopular that Southern California stood still in that respect for nearly 18 years, while the rest of the country (including Northern California) has forged way ahead.

*

"I can laugh now, but at the time it was horrendous," Gianturco says from her spacious home in the Old Land Park district near downtown Sacramento, where she lives with husband John Saltonstall, a lawyer, and her unclipped poodle, Dusty.

She has been out of public life since the 1980s, when both her parents became ill and she took time out to care for them. Then, after a few years as a free-lance writer, she launched her current business of buying and rehabilitating historic homes. Her job as transportation director took a toll, she admits. But she hasn't lost her zeal or her sense of humor. And, since we asked, she'd be delighted to set the record straight:

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