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TROUBLE ON THE WATERFRONT

Lockout Has Silver Lining: Lighter Freeway Traffic

October 02, 2002|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sure, the labor strife that has closed the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach is taking an economic toll on workers, shippers and others. But there are some people who wouldn't complain if the lockout continued for a few more days.

They are the motorists who are finding that without all those hulking big rigs hauling goods in and out of the ports their drive has been, well, smooth sailing.

"Beautiful" was the description California Highway Patrol Sgt. Thom Filkins gave for his drive Tuesday morning to a court hearing in Long Beach. "Where you normally have stop-and-go traffic, it was free-flowing."

It should be no surprise either. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach--the busiest in the nation--generate about 34,000 daily truck trips, most of which hit the freeways between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. The Long Beach, Harbor and San Gabriel River freeways are all major truck routes serving the harbor. On the Harbor Freeway, 18-wheel big rigs account for nearly 20% of the traffic, according to state officials.

So, when all of those trucks are suddenly idled, traffic is bound to improve.

Phil Hampton, a media relations manager who lives in West Los Angeles and commutes to Long Beach, said he noticed a dramatic improvement in his commute this week.

"In the last two days, I don't think I've seen a container truck on my way to work," he said.

Hampton said his commute usually is 50 minutes long.

"Today my drive was under 40 minutes," he said. "That is very unusual."

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation said the agency could not immediately gauge the effect of the lockout on freeway speeds in the region.

But other transportation experts said a drive along any southern Los Angeles County freeway will show that the lockout has markedly improved life for motorists in the gridlock-plagued region.

David Roseman, a Long Beach traffic engineer, said he saw a significant change in the traffic when he drove into downtown Los Angeles this week.

"On the 101 and the 405 [freeways] I only saw one tanker truck," he said. "Usually, it's wall to wall trucks."

But the extra elbow room on the freeways is not likely to last. Once the port lockout ends, truck traffic in Southern California is expected to gradually increase because of expanded trade with Pacific Rim countries.

According to one estimate, truck trips from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are expected to reach nearly 92,000 per day by 2020.

The impending truck traffic boom has spurred the Southern California Assn. of Governments to propose four exclusive truck lanes (two in each direction) on a 37-mile stretch of the Pomona Freeway from downtown Los Angeles to Ontario. The Pomona Freeway, a heavily used truck route, carries more than 46,000 trucks per day.

In May, a coalition of government agencies also offered several options for improving the Long Beach Freeway, including adding elevated truck lanes and truck bypass lanes that allow truckers to avoid congestion at key interchanges.

If such improvements are adopted, Roseman said, the current truck-free roadway scene could be a glimpse into the future.

"It could be a prediction," he said.

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