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Freeway flyer wants room to move -- fast

Foothill Transit wants Caltrans to restrict access to carpool lanes during peak hours so its new Silver Streak buses can make good time.

March 19, 2007|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

As traffic congestion through the Pomona and San Gabriel valleys worsens, the promise of a quicker commute -- and amenities such as free wireless Internet service -- should lure some solo motorists onto the new Silver Streak rapid buses.

But the success of the new service from Montclair to downtown Los Angeles, which started Sunday, rests on whether the 60-foot buses will be able to bypass traffic by racing down the San Bernardino Freeway carpool lanes.

Like the rest of the freeway, the high-occupancy vehicle lanes are getting crowded, whether from more carpools or solo drivers in hybrid vehicles using the dedicated lanes.

"There are just too many cars," said Doran Barnes, executive director of Foothill Transit, the public agency that runs the Silver Streak bus service.

So Barnes and other local transit officials are asking the California Department of Transportation to restrict access to the carpool lanes for at least two more hours each workday.

Vehicles -- except hybrids -- with fewer than three people are already banned during peak traffic hours, weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m.

Even with those restrictions, it now takes a bus two hours at rush hour to travel the same Montclair-to-downtown route that took 94 minutes a decade ago. Travel times have increased seven to 10 minutes in the last 18 months, transit officials said.

The Silver Streak is expected to reduce travel times to as little as about 90 minutes by stopping only at major transit hubs.

Buses have barreled past cars on the 10 Freeway east of downtown Los Angeles in their own dedicated lanes, known as the El Monte Busway, for most of three decades. But although the lanes were built for buses only, political pressures soon converted them into carpool lanes as well. That change came with a hitch, however: Vehicles had to carry at least three people, rather than the two that is standard for other such lanes.

After a failed experiment to open the lanes to vehicles with two or more people, a compromise was struck a few years ago, allowing such vehicles back in but only during off-peak hours. The busway is still one of the state's few sets of carpool lanes requiring three or more people per vehicle, if only during peak hours.

But transit officials say that compromise is no longer working. Like the buildup of residential developments along the bus route, rush-hour traffic on the San Bernardino Freeway is sprawling.

"Even with three in the carpool lane, we are seeing challenges," said Barnes, whose agency moves 15,000 commuters a day along the busway.

To keep its buses running on time, Foothill Transit wants to extend the morning restrictions to 10 a.m. and begin the afternoon peak period an hour earlier at 3 p.m.

"We need to get aggressive about trying to protect the integrity of the busway," said John Fasana, a Duarte city councilman who sits on the boards of Foothill Transit and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Caltrans officials say they are studying the idea. They are also working to secure funds to complete the stretch of carpool lanes between the 605 Freeway and the San Bernardino County line.

Fasana knows that plush new buses and free Internet service won't persuade motorists to give up their car keys unless they can get to work a little faster and on time. And that's where the Silver Streak comes in: It should take as little as 91 minutes to travel the 40 miles from the Montclair TransCenter to its last stop at Grand Avenue and Olympic Boulevard in downtown L.A.

Buses will operate around the clock and are scheduled to run every 12 minutes in peak time. The other stops are in Pomona, West Covina and El Monte, and at Cal State L.A., County-USC Medical Center and Union Station.

Besides providing Internet connections, the new buses are equipped with GPS and security cameras. An automated system will announce station stops and display bus arrival times.

The fare is $2, with discounts for eligible seniors, people with disabilities and Medicare cardholders. But until April 1, passengers can ride free.

For more information, call (800) RIDE-INFO or go to www.foothilltransit.org.

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jean.guccione@latimes.com

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