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BEHIND THE WHEEL

Open Roads Languish on the Drawing Board

Caltrans' 1958 master plan listed Reseda and Pacific Coast freeways. Today's commuters have time to mourn lost lanes.

May 29, 2001|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Brigid Stapleton has a 20-mile commute from her Winnetka home to her job as an office manager in Brentwood. That should take her about 30 minutes, driving east along the Ventura Freeway and south on the San Diego Freeway over the Mulholland Pass. Right?

Yeah, right.

The interchange of the Ventura and San Diego freeways is the second-busiest in the state, with 551,000 vehicles squeezing through daily. For that reason, Stapleton avoids both freeways. She leaves home two hours before she is scheduled to punch in at work. She cuts through side streets, canyon roads and commercial thoroughfares--anything to avoid the freeway gridlock.

On a good day, her commute takes 50 minutes each way. "It just makes your workday much longer," she said.

Why are that interchange and most freeways in Southern California such a nightmare? One explanation offered by some old-timers at the state Department of Transportation is that Southern Californians are driving on an unfinished freeway system.

In 1958, a group of engineers and planners from throughout Ventura, Los Angeles and Orange counties came together to create a freeway master plan to serve Southern California's burgeoning population until 1985. The group drew up a 1,500-mile system of freeways that would crisscross the region like a grid. Everyone would be within five miles of an onramp.

Under that plan, Stapleton would have had several alternatives to the Ventura and San Diego freeways. She could have taken the Whitnall-Malibu Freeway east across the floor of the San Fernando Valley and then headed south on the Reseda Freeway over the Santa Monica Mountains to the Pacific Coast Freeway. (That's right, PCH was supposed to be a bona fide freeway with onramps and overpasses, the works.) Or she could have taken the Whitnall-Malibu Freeway all the way to Hollywood and then headed west on the Beverly Hills Freeway.

But the Whitnall, Reseda, Pacific Coast and Beverly Hills freeways exist only on faded maps in the Caltrans archives.

Only 918 miles, or 61%, of the 1,500-mile master plan was built, although some pieces are even now still under construction.

Freeway opponents dispute the notion that more miles of highway would mean less congestion. Dana Gabbard, executive secretary of the Southern California Transit Advocates, calls that kind of thinking "auto-mania."

The solution, he said, is not more freeways but a better public transit system. Gabbard notes that new freeway lanes tend to attract motorists who had stayed off the freeway because of congestion. Eventually, these motorists create their own congestion. Planners call this phenomenon "latent demand."

"Within five years, the capacity expansion is swallowed up," he said.

But highway planners still mourn the master plan, which crumbled in the early 1970s when the economic downturn cut into state funding, and environmental protection laws and the "not in my backyard" syndrome put a roadblock on massive public works projects in urban regions.

The state Legislature adopted most of the master plan's 1,500 miles of freeway routes. But as construction costs and neighborhood opposition grew, lawmakers funded only a fraction of those routes.

Chuck O'Conner, a freeway guru who was Caltrans' deputy district manager from 1960 to 1995, saw the plan abandoned piece by piece.

He believes Southern California is now paying the price for what he describes as shortsighted planning.

"It is the primary reason for our traffic," he said.

Frank Quon, the Caltrans deputy director who took over when O'Conner retired, said Southern California's pared-down freeway system was not designed to meet the needs of nearly 13 million people.

Caltrans works to make the existing freeways as efficient as possible by converting shoulders into freeway lanes and using electronic surveillance cameras and a roaming army of tow trucks to clear delays.

But Quon concedes that there will come a day when such efforts will be overtaken by the ever-increasing flood of cars.

"There is a point when you are not going to get any more out of our system," he said.

But what's the point of crying over the demise of a 43-year-old freeway plan? After all, no one is now suggesting that the master plan be revived. That would be too expensive, in terms of construction costs, environmental impacts and in neighborhoods destroyed to make way for the new freeways.

Well, almost no one.

Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks introduced legislation this year to give Gov. Gray Davis the power to declare a "transportation gridlock emergency" and waive regulatory laws to widen Southern California's most congested freeways and build some of the routes proposed in the 1958 plan. The bill is awaiting a vote in the Senate Transportation Committee. McClintock concedes that it is unlikely to win much support.

He realizes it would be costly. After all, it cost the state $2.2 billion in 1993 to build the 17-mile Century Freeway from Norwalk to El Segundo.

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