The California Department of Transportation is beginning major construction on a long-anticipated widening of the 60 Freeway through the San Gabriel Valley, an ambitious project that some experts nonetheless doubt will significantly ease congestion on what has become a vital commerce route.
The widening project will add carpool lanes along an 11-mile stretch of the 60 between the 605 and 57 freeways, now considered a major bottleneck that handles both truck traffic from the ports and commuters from the Inland Empire.
Expected to be completed by the summer of 2011, the new lanes will increase the freeway's capacity and close a gap in the region's carpool lane system.
With a seven-mile carpool extension project east of the 15 Freeway in Riverside County to be finished later this year, the lane additions will complete a 48-mile stretch of high-occupancy vehicle lanes from East Los Angeles to Moreno Valley.
But a larger challenge still looms: how freeways like the 60 will accommodate the increasing number of oversize trucks lumbering to and from the ports.
The 60 Freeway has become the preferred route for trucks headed to Inland Empire warehouses and distribution centers, where goods are sorted before being sent all over the country.
The number of shipping containers arriving in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach is projected to more than double in the next 15 years, said Arley Baker, spokesman for the Port of Los Angeles.
At the same time, the Inland Empire continues to be among the fastest-growing residential areas in the state. But many of the new residents continue to commute into the Los Angeles Basin, where jobs are more plentiful.
That has made some freeways, especially the 710, 60 and 15, dual-purpose corridors, serving as shipping routes for semi-trucks and major corridors for commuters.
The growth creates a situation in which trucks and cars are competing for lanes, said John Fasana, a Duarte city councilman and board member of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
"With trucks, the safety issue is inherent. People are just uncomfortable driving with so many trucks on the road," he said. "With substantial growth at the ports, that's only going to grow."
On the 710 Freeway, which connects the ports to Greater Los Angeles, one in 10 vehicles are oversize trucks, according to Caltrans, and trucks account for 5% of traffic on the 60 Freeway.
All the work on carpool lanes has some transportation experts questioning why resources aren't being directed toward solving truck traffic as well.
Though the new carpool lanes will send some cars into designated lanes on the far left, they will do little to alleviate the growing traffic caused by goods movement, said Kristen Monaco, professor of economics at Cal State Long Beach.
"An HOV lane that's just used for cars is great when you just have lots of car traffic. But when you have more of a mix between cars and trucks, you're going to want to think about for-profit truck lanes," she said.
A 2004 proposal by the Southern California Assn. of Governments detailed a designated truck route that would shuttle goods from the ports to the Inland Empire along the 710, 60 and 15 freeways to Inland Empire distribution centers.
But at an estimated cost of $16.5 billion, such a project is unlikely to be funded any time soon.
Southern California transportation agencies are studying other ways to improve the flow of trade goods, such as improvements to the Alameda Corridor, the rail system that carries cargo in and out of the ports.
But for now, there is the 60 Freeway.
Talia Zapien is as happy as anyone about extra lanes coming to shorten her hourlong commute on the road.
But Zapien, 26, still plans to take the 10 Freeway as an alternate route between her home in La Puente and her job overseeing food concessions at Dodger Stadium, even though avoiding the 60 Freeway adds 20 minutes to her trip.
"There are too many big rigs on the 60," she said. "I don't like to get between them. They're a lot bigger, and they cause accidents. On the 10, I feel safer because it's mostly cars."
The $125-million widening project will include the erection of sound walls in some areas and changes to accommodate oversize trucks. Officials said the added carpool lanes will benefit the environment because they will take some cars off the road.
Rose Casey, deputy planning director for Caltrans District 7, said, "It saves people time, it will save dollars, it will improve air quality."