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California and the West

Panel OKs Hiring 150 CHP Motorcycle Officers to Fight Traffic Gridlock


SACRAMENTO — State Senate budget writers voted Thursday to hire about 150 new California Highway Patrol motorcycle officers for a statewide attack on worsening traffic gridlock during morning and evening commute hours.

The dramatic increase was approved unanimously by a subcommittee of the Senate Budget Committee and totaled 10 times more than the 15 officers called for by Gov. Gray Davis in his proposed state budget.

The panel's action is subject to refinement as the Legislature and governor craft a final state budget in the next few months. But it marked one of the rare recent occasions when lawmakers have moved directly to try to put a dent in traffic congestion, a major gripe of their constituents.

Under the plan, the new motorcycle officers would be assigned exclusively to keep traffic moving at chronic "choke points" in heavily congested highways in Southern California and the Bay Area.

The officers also would be deployed to rapidly clear accidents that other officers in patrol cars could not reach because they, too, are trapped in traffic.

"Their whole job would not be so much to investigate the accident [but] to get to the scene, clear the scene . . . and get traffic flowing again," CHP Commissioner D.O. "Spike" Helmick testified.

"Our intent would be to use them during the rush hour in the morning and the rush hour at night," he said.

Helmick did not identify specific "choke points," but told legislators he will soon submit a list of targets. He said there are 30 or more statewide.

The commissioner cautioned that deployment of the additional motorcycle officers would not eliminate chronic congestion on California roadways. But he said a faster response by motorcycle officers who can nimbly navigate to a road blockage, get it removed and restore the movement of traffic would "alleviate some of the people's frustration."

With funds saved from another part of the CHP's budget, subcommittee members earmarked $14.5 million for the plan, which Helmick estimated would hire about 150 officers. Currently, 500 of the CHP's 6,000 officers are assigned to motorcycle duty, he said.

A representative of the governor's Department of Finance withheld comment on the subcommittee's proposal. Helmick later said he believed Davis would support the dramatic expansion because "he wants to solve the problem."

The budget panel's plan appeared to emerge spontaneously as members began examining Davis' proposal to hire 15 additional motorcycle officers on an experimental basis and assign them to decongestion duty in Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

However, Sen. Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley) noted that congestion also is a major problem for commuters in other urban regions, such as Orange, San Diego, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

"Fifteen more positions?" she asked. "It doesn't seem like it's enough."

"We need to expand this program," said Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford), the chairman.

However, Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles) said he was skeptical that more motorcycle officers would make much of a dent. "Congestion is congestion for deeper reasons than can be fixed by 100 CHP officers," he said.

Hayden, who ended up voting for the new officers, said he would have preferred to see proof that additional officers actually would result in less congestion.

The committee agreed to amendments to the budget bill that would require the CHP to evaluate the effectiveness of the program and report back to the Legislature.

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