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BEHIND THE WHEEL

Southland Will Have to Wait for 511 Traffic Line

Bay Area has had the service since December; L.A. has to make do with 1-800-COMMUTE, but users say it falls short.

October 07, 2003|Caitlin Liu | Times Staff Writer

Before Mollie McPhee cruises her silver Volvo onto a Bay Area freeway, she often dials 511 on her cellular phone for help.

The 39-year-old Palo Alto woman has the option of taking one of two freeways -- the 101 or the 280 -- to drive home from her San Francisco job. Depending on traffic conditions, her commute down either route could range from 45 minutes to an hour and a half. So she consults 511 to find out which one to avoid.

"It'll tell you: 'Car accident, Millbrae exit, left-hand lane is closed.' Sometimes it'll tell you: 'Traffic is slow at Cesar Chavez and the 101,' " McPhee said. "It's pretty specific."

Sometimes McPhee, an education specialist, finds herself coming upon a sudden sea of brake lights. So she'll call 511 to learn the exact cause, location and time of the incident to get an idea of how long she might be delayed and whether there's any way around the backup.

"I'm a type-A person," McPhee said. "I love it!"

McPhee is one of many harried motorists in the Bay Area who now regularly dial into the region's 511 network for a little help with their commute. Up and running since December, the system, which also provides transit information, logged its millionth call last month.

The number does not exist in Southern California, where dialing it will only yield an error tone. The closest counterpart in this region is 1-800-COMMUTE, a toll-free line funded by the California Department of Transportation that provides public transit information and limited updates on highways.

Since July 2000, when the Federal Communications Commission designated 511 as the traveler information line -- just as 911 has been set aside for emergency calls and 411 for directory assistance -- 19 regions in 18 states now offer the service, according to the 511 Deployment Coalition, a collaborative effort between American Public Transportation Assn., American Assn. of State Highway and Transportation officials, the Intelligent Transportation Society of America and the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The FCC's designation did not come with a mandate or funding, however. With the exception of $100,000 state grants from the Department of Transportation -- which cover only a fraction of actual costs in large metropolitan areas -- most of the efforts around the nation have been funded locally.

There is no timeline for establishing the system in Southern California because of several hurdles, those familiar with the situation say.

One barrier is the complexity. Southern California's large population, vast geographic spread and huge volumes of traffic data make it difficult to filter and deliver the information by phone. "Because of our concerns, we did not want to be pioneers for 511," said Tom Longsden, communications manager for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The region also faces a shortage of transportation funding, and a recent Southern California Assn. of Governments report estimated that starting a 511 system could cost up to $6 million. "We have no money," said Bob Huddy, senior transportation planner for the association.

Besides, Longsden said, "with 1-800-COMMUTE, we think we offer most of the benefits under 511."

But users familiar with both say 1-800-COMMUTE is a weak cousin to the Bay Area's system.

The 1-800-COMMUTE network, which receives 3 million calls a year, routes calls to dozens of transportation agencies in Southern California. The vast majority of the calls seek transit information from the MTA.

Hank Fung, a 22-year-old engineer who moved from Berkeley to Pomona in July, said 511 is quicker and more convenient than 1-800-COMMUTE because it is easy to dial and the commands are voice-activated. It also offers much more accurate and up-to-date information.

After connecting to 1-800-COMMUTE, callers must punch a telephone keypad through layers of menus of options -- which makes it especially unwieldy for those juggling a steering wheel and a cell phone. The network also only provides limited highway information, such as extreme weather conditions that impair driving and maintenance-related closures.

For example, a 1-800-COMMUTE caller inquiring about the 405 Freeway on a recent afternoon might have been led to believe things were fine when, in fact, traffic was jammed because a tanker truck had collided with a car in the southbound lanes near Marina del Rey.

The accident closed a lane and resulted in a 1 1/2-hour SigAlert, according to the California Highway Patrol. But a 1-800-COMMUTE caller -- one hour after the accident occurred and when the lane was still closed -- would have heard the following: "No adverse conditions or delays on the route you have selected."

By contrast, a call to the Bay Area's 511 system to inquire about Interstate 80, which stretches from San Francisco over the Bay Bridge into the East Bay, warned motorists to brace themselves for congestion.

A recorded message announced several incidents, a couple of which had occurred only minutes before. The warnings included one about debris on the freeway that was slowing traffic near one exit and a disabled vehicle that had closed a lane next to another off-ramp.

"It's a good system," said Fung, the Pomona engineer. "Such a system is needed here."

But he shouldn't program the three digits into his speed-dial anytime soon.

"We're taking a close look at the Bay Area. They're doing a good job," said Huddy, of the governments association. But, he added, "in a region this size, the last thing we want is to go down the wrong path and make some costly mistakes. We're in a 'wait and see.' "

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If you have a question, gripe or story idea about driving in Southern California write to Behind the Wheel c/o Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, or send an e-mail to behindthewheel@latimes.com.

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