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THE STATE | COLUMN ONE

A Major Lane Change

The once innovative cloverleaf freeway interchange is now considered a bottleneck. Flyover ramps are seen as the way to go.

April 07, 2004|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

Now, transportation engineers recommend cloverleaf interchanges only for rural regions where traffic is light. But that suggestion comes too late for Southern California, where at least two dozen cloverleafs contribute to congestion on major freeways. Moreover, the state's budget crisis has ensured that only a few of the interchanges will be replaced in the next decade.

"It's as big a problem as not having additional lanes to handle the extra traffic," said Hasan Ikhrata, director of transportation policy and planning for the Southern California Assn. of Governments.

In Riverside, the cloverleaf junction of the Riverside and Pomona freeways creates such a hair-raising motorist mosh pit that Cindy Roth, president of the Greater Riverside Chamber of Commerce, has refused to let her 16-year-old daughter break in her new driver's license there. "I told her to get off and take the side streets," Roth said. "That is how bad it is."

It should remain "bad" until the redesign and expansion project is completed in 2008.

In Los Angeles County, three cloverleaf interchanges on a 2-mile length of the Long Beach Freeway in Long Beach contribute to making that one of the region's most congested and vexing stretches of freeway.

Margaret Peterson, a veteran short-haul trucker who regularly tackles the Long Beach Freeway, said truck drivers hate cloverleaf interchanges because state law requires big rigs to stay in the two right-hand lanes, forcing truckers to drive into the weaving traffic, like a stone dropped into a food mixer.

She also notes that an 80,000-pound rig can't maneuver the banking loop ramps at the same speed as a small passenger car. As a result, Peterson said, safety-minded truckers easing along the concrete loops often end up with impatient motorists in passenger cars blasting them from behind with their horns.

To eliminate the weaving traffic that locks up cloverleaf interchanges, transportation engineers often remove two of the loops, replacing them with expensive flyover ramps that carry traffic over the intersection, allowing cars to merge into traffic farther from the roadway junction. Another remedy to the problem is to move the merging and weaving to separate "collector/distributor" roads that run parallel to the freeways.

In San Jose, the California Department of Transportation plans to spend $12 million to redesign an obsolete cloverleaf intersection on U.S. 101 using flyover ramps to ease the gridlock. At the cloverleaf interchange in Riverside, Caltrans plans to do the same, replacing two of the loop ramps with two flyovers.

Even the nation's first cloverleaf interchange, in Woodbridge, is about to undergo a massive remodeling. The New Jersey Department of Transportation plans to spend more than $20 million to convert the antiquated cloverleaf into a diamond-shape interchange that will eliminate the weaving lane.

For years, Woodbridge residents considered it a point of pride to live in the home of the nation's first cloverleaf interchange, said Woodbridge Mayor Frank Pelzman, who has lived in the town of 97,000 since 1941. The town's graveyard, next to the interchange, is called the Cloverleaf Cemetery.

But the Woodbridge interchange now represents a daily headache for commuters.

So far, Pelzman said, he had heard of no one who wanted to preserve the cloverleaf interchange for the sake of history. Pelzman himself is looking forward to driving over the intersection without having to battle the mire of traffic.

"Like everything else, progress moves on," the mayor said.

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