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Unclogging carpool lanes is a priority

Cracking down on cheaters and requiring more passengers per car are among options.

September 12, 2007|Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writer

Caltrans must figure out how to reduce growing congestion in California's carpool lanes or face a possible cut in federal funding. But as is so often the case with freeway planning, there are no easy solutions for getting traffic flowing better.

The stakes are high for all freeway drivers, including owners of hybrid cars who can now use carpool lanes solo, and even for those who never carpool but might end up seeing more traffic in their lanes.

For starters, officials want to raise the $341 minimum fine for carpool lane violators and step up patrols to catch cheaters. About 5% of motorists riding in the carpool lanes are believed to be cheaters, and cutting that violation rate even slightly could help reduce congestion, officials and experts said.

"Even if we could . . . cut in half that violation rate, we would see some significant improvement," said Caltrans Director Will Kempton.

But the California Highway Patrol is still trying to figure out how to fund additional officers for special patrols tasked with catching speeders and responding to accidents.

"We are obviously stretched thin as far as our officers are concerned," said Tom Marshall, a spokesman for the CHP. "If we're going to do specifically targeted patrols, yes, we're going to have to find a way to fund either overtime or extra officers."

Moreover, several transportation experts are skeptical that higher fines alone would solve the problem.

The push comes three months after the Federal Highway Administration declared California's carpool lanes out of compliance with federal regulations, which require the lanes to flow at speeds of 45 mph or faster at rush hour.

The speeds are far lower in the diamond lanes on some major Southern California routes, including portions of the 405 freeway from the South Bay through Orange County, as well as parts of the 5 and 210 freeways.

Carpool lanes have slowed down so much in some areas that even bus operators are complaining. According to Caltrans, nearly half of the state's 1,350-mile carpool lane system is operating below acceptable speeds.

In a conference call with reporters last week, Kempton made other promises, including completing gaps in the state's carpool lane system and clearing accidents from freeways more quickly.

Those two ideas are not new. Building costly new carpool lanes throughout the region has long been a Caltrans priority, and in April Kempton committed to clearing all accidents within 90 minutes; last year, it took an average of three hours to clear accident scenes.

Kempton said more ideas will come in October, after his agency completes a freeway-by-freeway analysis of the slowest carpool lanes, which are primarily in Southern California.

Transportation experts say there are several obvious solutions that would speed up the lanes.

But none are politically popular:

Prohibit single-occupant hybrid vehicles in carpool lanes. From 2005 to February 2007, California issued permits to allow solo drivers in the most fuel-efficient cars to use the lanes. The program was so popular state lawmakers increased the program cap from 75,000 to 85,000 even though Caltrans recommended against it.

Ending the privilege, from a practical standpoint, "would be a no-brainer," said Genevieve Giuliano, director of the National Center for Metropolitan Transportation Research at USC. Hybrid vehicles, she said, "are actually more fuel-efficient if they are going slow."

Kempton said Caltrans would bar hybrids from using the most congested carpool lanes only as a last resort. The program is set to end in 2011.

Increase the number of people needed to form a carpool from two occupants to three. Virtually all freeways in Southern California require only two, except for the El Monte Busway on the 10 freeway, which requires three during peak hours.

"That would allow for a higher speed on the HOV lanes, but it would again result in a large constituency of drivers" upset -- namely, two-person carpools, said Martin Wachs, director of transportation and technology at the Rand Corp.

Diverting two-person carpools into regular lanes could also worsen congestion for regular commuters, according to some Caltrans officials.

Convert regular freeway lanes into carpool lanes. Caltrans tried that on the Santa Monica Freeway in the 1970s, prompting a motorist revolt, and since then it pledged to introduce carpool lanes only by adding more road space. As a result, this scenario is highly unlikely.

Charge to use the carpool lane. This is done on the 91 Express Lanes connecting Orange County and Riverside County. Carpools with three or more occupants are charged when traveling eastbound from 4 to 6 p.m., although they receive a 50% discount off the regular toll.

That would probably prompt immediate objections from carpoolers who currently use the lanes elsewhere in the region for free.

"There's no obvious solution that would satisfy everybody," Wachs said, adding that he is not advocating any particular approach.

Kempton said the best long-term solution would be to increase capacity -- by expanding the system to other freeways, and constructing a second carpool lane next to an existing one.

Such expansions could be financed by allowing solo drivers to use carpool lanes if they pay a toll, he said.

But widening roads takes time and money, and experts said it is critical that officials ensure that carpool lanes move faster than regular traffic.

"Unless that time savings is consistent and reliable, the motivation to form a carpool is lost," said Brian Taylor, head of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA.

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ron.lin@latimes.com

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