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Counties' routes to commute fixes diverge

July 27, 2007|Rong-Gong Lin II and David Reyes | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles and Orange counties have long taken different paths when it comes to how to deal with traffic.

Los Angeles has invested heavily in rail. Orange County has shunned rail, arguing that freeway improvements are the best way to tame traffic. O.C. has embraced toll roads, while many L.A. officials have remained wary.

Now, the two counties are debating how motorists can access carpool lanes -- and the outcome could have implications for freeway commuters across Southern California.

Orange County wants to, in essence, partially deregulate carpool lanes. One idea is to open the lanes to short-term travelers by removing the double yellow lines that bar access except at certain entry and exit points. The county also wants to allow solo motorists to use carpool lanes during off-peak hours, when officials say the lanes are underutilized.

Officials at the Orange County Transportation Authority argue that motorists are smart enough to handle such changes and that the changes would improve traffic flow. On Thursday, they took a rare trip north to make their case to the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Board of Directors.

Some officials in Los Angeles County at the California Department of Transportation say they will consider the idea. But they wonder whether opening up the lanes could worsen traffic by having more people change lanes, which slows down the flow on freeways.

"Every time a car needs to weave across a regular lane in order to get into a carpool lane, it creates a certain amount of congestion," said Doug Failing, district director of Caltrans for L.A. and Ventura counties, in a recent interview. "If a person weaves across into that carpool lane and they cross ... four or five lanes, you want them to be there for a long time and travel a long distance."

There is general agreement that Los Angeles and Orange counties will have to settle on a single standard for the carpool lanes to avoid confusing motorists. Officials in the Inland Empire have already expressed interest in Orange County's concept.

The meeting Thursday was cordial, with both L.A. and Orange County officials vowing to discuss the matter further and agreeing about the importance of reaching some kind of agreement.

But the two counties have a history of marching to different drummers.

Orange County has widened the 5 Freeway through much of the county, and plans to finish the project in Buena Park by 2010. But the 10-lane superhighway will narrow to a 1950s-era six-lane road at the county line, creating a major bottleneck because L.A. County has not yet begun a widening. A similar bottleneck could emerge on the 405, where Orange County plans a major widening and reworking of the 405-22-605 interchange in Seal Beach.

L.A. County, meanwhile, has invested heavily in rail and bus service, hoping to provide a meaningful alternative to driving. But Orange County rejected plans for a light-rail line, known as CenterLine, and voters in November renewed a half-cent sales tax that will widen nearly every freeway in the county.

They "have very different transportation philosophies," said Genevieve Giuliano, director of the National Center for Metropolitan Transportation Research at USC. "It's night and day."

Thanks in part to Orange County's focus on freeways, many of them are also lined with carpool lanes, and officials have now focused attention on how to more efficiently use the lanes.

Last year, Caltrans officials in Orange County announced the launch of a pilot program to allow continuous access to a carpool lane on the 22 Freeway, a busy east-west route between Seal Beach and Orange that was being widened.

The program began in December when the carpool lanes were opened up, and Caltrans and OCTA officials say they are planning to expand the program to the 405, 91 and 57 freeways.

An OCTA-commissioned poll released Monday showed that nearly two-thirds of surveyed motorists supported allowing solo drivers to use carpool lanes during off-peak hours, and 71% believed they should be allowed to enter and exit carpool lanes at will.

Orange County officials also believe they can cut commute times if carpool lanes are open to solo drivers during non-peak hours. A recent Caltrans report sent to the federal government found that many of Southern California's carpool lanes are congested during rush hour. But backers argue that at other times of the day, traffic would be smoother if the carpool lanes were available to all.

Orange County officials pointed out that the San Francisco Bay Area has long allowed solo motorists to use carpool lanes during off-peak hours, and lets motorists enter or exit the lanes whenever they want.

"Why the difference? Does Northern California have better drivers than we do? Are they smarter? ... I don't think that's true," said Carolyn Cavecche, mayor of Orange and chairwoman of the OCTA. "This is a common-sense approach to carpool lanes."

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