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Carpool rule shift is made easier

Caltrans will let its O.C. chief decide on allowing solo drivers here to use lanes outside rush hour. More study is coming, especially of drawbacks.

February 06, 2007|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

Whether to allow solo Orange County freeway motorists to drive in carpool lanes during off-peak hours will be decided by local Caltrans officials rather than those in Sacramento.

That increases the possibility that solo drivers will be able to use the carpool lanes, as they can in parts of the Bay Area and Sacramento, Carolyn Cavecche, chairwoman of the Orange County Transportation Authority, said Monday. County Supervisor Bill Campbell first made the request about a year ago.

In December, new carpool lanes on the Garden Grove Freeway became the first "continuous access" lanes in Southern California, enabling drivers to go in and out of the lanes regardless of how they are striped. The same access could be applied on other freeways in the county if the Caltrans policy is changed.

Cindy Quon, Caltrans director for Orange County, said it will take some time before she reaches a decision. Caltrans plans to meet with OCTA to discuss the safety risks and other consequences of allowing more vehicles in the carpool lanes.

Carpool lanes were added to encourage commuters to share rides, reducing traffic and vehicle exhaust. But allowing solo drivers the same access could have disadvantages, Quon said, such as further clogging traffic and adding to air pollution.

"That's one of the things we need to study," she said.

Cars and trucks with at least two occupants are allowed to use the lanes, as are motorcyclists and solo drivers in certain hybrid vehicles.

Campbell, a former assemblyman, got the idea for the policy change while commuting in Sacramento County. Caltrans restricts carpool lane access there only during morning and evening rush hours.

From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and again after 7 p.m., the lanes are open to all vehicles. During those times, drivers can also go in and out of the lanes regardless of how they're striped.

In Southern California, a few routes, among them the Antelope Valley Freeway, allow off-peak use by all drivers.

But there are safety factors to consider, Caltrans officials said. Some freeways have bridge pillars close to carpool lanes that could pose a danger if drivers were allowed to enter and exit the lanes at any time. In addition, freeway signs would have to adequately warn drivers because the policy would presumably remain unchanged in neighboring counties.

In other business, OCTA board members who are part of a regional highway planning committee held a closed session to hear from the contractor on the $500-million Garden Grove Freeway renovation.

Bad weather, project additions and other factors have caused delays in the project, which was supposed to have been completed Nov. 30. Work is continuing.

Although the contractor, Granite-Myers-Rados, is liable for penalties for not completing the work on time, a company spokesman has emphasized that project changes, including major bridge work, delayed completion through no fault of the company's.

The board, which could have imposed penalties on the contractor, took no action for now. After the meeting, Cavecche said she was satisfied that the contractor and OCTA were trying to work out a solution.

"But, personally, I'm not happy with what GMR brought to us today," she said.

david.reyes@latimes.com

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