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For Carpoolers, Rules of the Road Have a Regional Flavor

September 14, 1997|JOSE CARDENAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

California's two major urban areas have substantially different weather, attitudes and lifestyles. To the almost endless catalog of their differences you can add another:

Los Angeles and San Francisco have very different rules for carpool lanes.

Although diamond lanes in the Los Angeles area are reserved for car-poolers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all vehicles in the San Francisco Bay Area are allowed access to those lanes during off-peak hours and on weekends.

Different cities in California have different systems, because the California Department of Transportation allows its 12 regional district headquarters some local autonomy.

"We try to have the facilities reflect the wishes of the local community," said Caltrans spokesman Jim Drago.

Not sufficiently, says state Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Northridge), an outspoken critic of carpool lanes. He said he often hears complaints from constituents that they would like more access for lone drivers.

"I would even argue the best time to open the carpool lanes [to everyone] is during the hours of peak congestion," McClintock said.

Caltrans' District 7, which covers Los Angeles and Ventura counties, operates 131 of the state's 415 miles of carpool lanes, including stretches on the Antelope Valley, San Diego, Foothill, Ventura and Santa Monica freeways.

The agency hopes to build about 200 more miles of the lanes in the Los Angeles area by 2010, said Dawn Helou, District 7's senior transportation engineer.

"We do what is most beneficial and effective," she said. "The purpose of the [carpool] lanes is to move more people around the city, rather than more vehicles."

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The system used in Los Angeles is based on several factors, including traffic patterns particular to the area, and should be preserved because the lanes are crucial to the future of transportation in Southern California, Helou said.

"Carpool lanes will become the backbone of other modes of transportation" by connecting air, rail and bus stations, Helou said.

One of the main differences between San Francisco and Los Angeles traffic patterns is the direction of traffic, Caltrans officials say.

The pattern in San Francisco is fairly simple, said Jeff Weiss, a Caltrans spokesman there.

Most commuters drive into the city's business district on weekdays between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m. and leave between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. The agency can afford to open the carpool lanes on the Bay Bridge to everyone the rest of the day and on weekends--when traffic is fairly thin.

In Los Angeles, the peak congestion hours are similar, but other traffic patterns are more complicated, according to officials here.

The local freeways have a steady flow of traffic throughout the day on weekdays and weekends, Helou said.

Unlike the Bay Area, where the two main business destinations are downtown San Francisco and the Silicon Valley, Helou said Los Angeles has numerous business destinations, including downtown, the Westside, Los Angeles International Airport and various parts of the San Fernando Valley.

Switching systems would be expensive, Helou said.

Though no formal study has been done, costs would include adding and changing freeway signs. Motorists would be confused about when to use the lanes, and more of them would challenge citations, Helou said.

Consequently, Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol would use more resources on providing records for court cases and officers would spend more time testifying.

The CHP remains neutral on the issue and will "enforce whatever laws are on the books," said Sgt. Ernie Garcia, a spokesman for the agency.

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All things considered, it would not be worth the bother to open the lanes to the lone motorists during the few hours when they are not needed by car-poolers, which would be mostly late at night when freeway traffic is light anyway, officials said.

Meanwhile, neighboring District 8--which oversees carpool lanes on Highways 60 and 91 in San Bernardino and Riverside counties respectively--and District 12--with 154 miles of carpool lanes throughout Orange County--use the same system as Los Angeles.

Both districts use it partly to maintain consistency throughout the region, in which many residents commute freely between those counties, authorities said.

"We don't want to go from one county to another and everything changes," said Cyrin Kwong, branch chief of freeway systems in the San Bernardino area.

The only variation from the strict rules in Southern California is a reversible carpool lane on Highway 15 in San Diego. The lane is used Monday though Friday from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. by southbound traffic and from 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. by northbound commuters.

But the lane is closed altogether the rest of the time and on holidays.

"People complain about the lane being closed," said Jim Larson, community affairs director in that area. "They feel they paid for it so they want to use it. Our response is that there is enough capacity when it's not being used. . . . We're probably 10 years behind [Los Angeles] in congestion."

Constituent complaints about carpool lanes being off limits to the rest of the public are not rare around his office either, McClintock said, although he has no plans to do away with them.

The assemblyman, who long has opposed building lanes for exclusive carpool use, said the lanes are desperately needed to relieve gridlock for all motorists--especially during rush hours.

He said his offices have been swamped with letters and calls of support from constituents when he has spoken out against the lanes.

"These lanes will be sandblasted off the face of the road the moment people are willing to flood their representatives with protests," he said.

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