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CITY SMART | Street Smart

Caltrans' Happy Campers Make Commuting Safer

October 11, 1996|MATEA GOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Every morning, Carl and Joy Biller gaze out at a wide expanse of pavement stretching before their 40-foot ivory and plum Beaver motor home. They don't mind that their backyard is an asphalt parking lot--they just wish it would fill up with more cars.

The Billers and neighbor Carol Helland live on a Caltrans park-and-ride lot just off the Harbor Freeway in San Pedro. In a program patterned after campground hosts in parks, motor home and mobile home owners are stationed at three Los Angeles County Caltrans lots to deter would-be thieves and give commuters a sense of security.

In exchange for a free place to put their homes, paid electricity and a sewer line hookup, the hosts keep an eye on vehicles parked in the lot by bus riders and car poolers.

The latest site is in San Pedro. So far, only a handful of drivers have taken advantage of the 280-spot lot on Beacon Street.

"I hope it increases. There are so many advantages--people can save 40 minutes a day just riding the bus," said 69-year-old Joy Biller. "Everyone who parks here that we've talked to is really happy. They're glad that somebody's here."

Car thieves and vandals had been striking vehicles in a Diamond Bar park-and-ride lot at 100 N. Diamond Bar Boulevard until the California Department of Transportation stationed the first hosts there in 1990. Since then, there have been few crimes. Caltrans expanded the program to a Glendora lot at 228 W. Baseline Road three years ago, and started it in San Pedro in February.

"It's a low-cost way of providing some security," said Terry Blank, senior transportation planner for Caltrans. "Now people feel secure in leaving their cars, and that's what the program is all about--encouraging ride sharing."

An on-site security guard would cost a minimum of $90 a day, Blank said. The bill for the host program is less than $200 a month for utilities for each motor home.

Los Angeles is the only place in the state to have park-and-ride hosts, but guidelines are being developed elsewhere, said Mike Gray, park-and-ride facilities coordinator for Caltrans. Another Glendora lot will get hosts in about six months.

Doreen Welborn, an information specialist who catches the 445 bus at the San Pedro lot, said she feels much safer knowing that the Billers are keeping an eye on her and her car.

"I don't have to worry about coming home late at night and my car being stolen, or worry about being there by myself," said Welborn, who has parked in the lot for 15 years. "They make sure I'm OK."

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Caltrans instructs the hosts not to get involved if they see any criminal activity and just to call the police.

The Billers haven't confronted any criminals, but they do garner curious stares and questions from nearby residents and law enforcement officials. The Los Angeles police, California Highway Patrol and representatives of a city councilwoman all came out to investigate the new parking lot tenants.

"We heard, 'What are you doing here?' for the first six months," said 71-year-old Carl Biller said. "For a while, every new shift of the Highway Patrol stopped by to ask what we were doing."

The Billers said the host program has allowed them to take a respite from their road roaming. They had been traversing the Western states for about five years when they saw an ad for the program in Highways, a national RV magazine.

Now, the Billers rise at 6 a.m. Monday through Friday to watch the morning commute file in, and stay on guard for the next 12 hours. They swap weeks with Helland.

"It's great, except for maybe a little boredom," Carl Biller said.

So far, the dozen or so parked cars gives them little to monitor. But the near-empty San Pedro lot has become a safe haven for other citizens. Helland helped out a couple on a date when their transmission broke. A family driving across the Vincent Thomas Bridge took refuge in the lot when their brakes went out. And nearby residents have been frequenting the asphalt-coated site, letting their kids play under the tenants' watchful eyes or taking an evening jog under the glaring beams of the floodlights.

The Beacon Street residents haven't given up on more commuters using the lot for its designated purpose--to cut down on traffic.

"I think it's going to take letting people know there's a secure place for their vehicle," said 45-year-old Helland. "If you love your car, you want to make sure it's safe."

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