Ventura Freeway--It's Now No. 1 : Santa Monica No Longer L.A.'s Most Heavily Traveled Roadway

Times Urban Affairs Writer

Move aside, Santa Monica Freeway.

Step up, Ventura Freeway--you're No. 1!

To the surprise of probably no one among the thousands of people who use it, the jammed, slow-moving Ventura Freeway through the San Fernando Valley has become the Los Angeles area's most heavily traveled thoroughfare.

With the crush of cars, trucks, buses, campers and other vehicles hitting a daily average of 267,000, the Ventura has toppled the area's longtime champion traffic generator--the Santa Monica Freeway, which has an average daily traffic flow of 240,000 at its busiest point.

The Ventura's record-shattering designation goes even further. The freeway, according to California Department of Transportation traffic analyses and other sources, also has become the busiest route in the state, the nation and quite possibly--with the Guinness Book of World Records as the authority--the world.

And for good measure, the San Diego Freeway is right on its heels. Its average daily traffic load has hit 266,000 at its busiest point.

Beats Dan Ryan Expressway

The new figures make the Ventura eligible for the Guinness Book, dumping the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago, which Guinness has listed for several years as the world's "most heavily traveled" highway with a daily volume of 255,000 vehicles.

"Thank goodness!" a Chicago transportation official sighed when informed that the Dan Ryan had lost its title.

Caltrans officials accepted the Ventura Freeway's dubious new honor with aplomb.

"It doesn't surprise me--not the way the San Fernando Valley's been growing," said Heinz Heckeroth, Caltrans' Los Angeles district director. "Even at 10 p.m. you know you're in traffic on the Ventura Freeway. To make the 'Hit Parade,' a freeway has to have peaks in both directions, mornings and evenings. That's the Ventura."

Guiness' American editor was noncommittal. In New York, David Boehm said the freeway's claim on the "No. 1 in the world title" would have to be backed up by an authoritative, independent source, and its eligibility determined in London. "We're particular about what we put in the book," he said.

Caltrans' new traffic counts also have revealed another distinction for the Ventura Freeway. Its junction with the San Diego Freeway now handles the highest traffic volume of any point in the world. That spot is the meat grinder-like interchange where the two freeways converge in the Sherman Oaks area. More traffic churns through it in a 24-hour period than through the East Los Angeles Interchange, the Guinness Book's titleholder for traffic--458,000 vehicles in a 24-hour period.

Although four freeways--the Santa Monica, Golden State, Santa Ana and Pomona--come together at the East Los Angeles Interchange, the Ventura-San Diego Freeway merging point tops it with a daily average of 464,000 vehicles, Caltrans reported.

Placed bumper to bumper, cars and trucks flowing through the interchange in 24 hours would form a continuous line from Los Angeles to Seattle and probably beyond.

The Ventura Freeway's new No. 1 status may go unchallenged for some time. There is no immediate relief for what one Caltrans official called the freeway's "maxed-out" rush-hour congestion, and it will be at least three years before the state agency has the money to add extra lanes to handle the monumental traffic crunch.

"It's always slow. There's always some delay--it's just a question of how much," said Steve Brtis, who has been driving the freeway 15 years to his job as operations officer for a downtown bank. The commute between his Woodland Hills home and downtown is 31 miles.

Always awash with traffic, the Ventura Freeway claimed its No. 1 ranking, Caltrans counters said, by handling record numbers of vehicles at a point just west of the San Diego Freeway. There the Ventura widens out to 10 and 11 lanes in both directions, and traffic sometimes peaks at nearly 300,000 vehicles a day.

Slight Decrease Near Encino

On the San Diego Freeway, Caltrans recorded the freeway's heaviest traffic flow at Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles, where the count was a scant 1,000 cars fewer than the Ventura Freeway's record average of 267,000.

It takes Toyota, Japan's largest auto maker, nearly a month to turn out that many cars and trucks, and it takes San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge about 2 1/2 days to record that many cars crossing between Marin County and San Francisco.

Registered electronically by sensors embedded in the roadway's surface, the Ventura Freeway's huge traffic mess drops off somewhat--although it is hardly noticeable--east and west of the record-producing measuring point.

For example, traffic remains in the range of 240,000 to 250,000 vehicles a day for nearly 9 miles between Encino, west of the San Diego Freeway, and the Ventura's junction with the Hollywood Freeway in North Hollywood.

Nor has the Santa Monica Freeway's downfall given motorists who use it much to feel glad about. Caltrans officials said traffic is only slightly lighter than it used to be, if at all.

Traffic counts on the Santa Monica, which used to carry an average of 253,000 vehicles in 1981, have varied quite a bit recently, suggesting that traffic-counting is indeed an inexact process subject to interpretation and to electronic and human error.

Recent electronic counts fed into Caltrans' downtown Los Angeles operations center showed a daily average of about 220,000. But some Caltrans officials said it is probably closer to 240,000.

Caltrans transportation planners discount the possibility that more commuters may be riding buses or car-pooling, and concede the variation in traffic counts--from an average 253,000 to 220,000 or less--may not mean an actual decrease at all because there is a margin of error in calculations of 5.5% in either direction.

Still Too Many Cars

"It's all in the same magnitude--too many cars," said Albert Wheelock, an assistant transportation engineer who is Caltrans' official traffic count keeper.

His latest count for the Santa Monica Freeway showed a daily average of 218,000 cars and trucks near La Brea Avenue, his highest count for that freeway.

However, David Roper, Caltrans deputy district director for operations, questioned what he considered an uncharacteristically low traffic level for such a busy freeway through the center of the city. Roper, who uses the Santa Monica to commute downtown from his Santa Monica home, believes that there has been little change in the freeway's traffic volumes since Caltrans' controversial Diamond Lane experiment nearly 10 years ago. "I feel comfortable with 240,000," he said.

Re-evaluating the traffic counts, Caltrans concluded that the 218,000 figure was based on erroneous computer information and settled on 240,000 near Crenshaw Boulevard as the point of the highest official daily traffic load.

That number is identical to the 1976 traffic counts when Caltrans officials, trying to ease congestion on the busy Santa Monica Freeway, imposed restricted Diamond Lanes and succeeded only in angering the freeway's commuters. Clearly the Santa Monica was the region's most heavily traveled freeway--Diamond Lanes or not--and so it remained. Nationally and worldwide, only Chicago's Dan Ryan Expressway outranked it.

The Dan Ryan, meanwhile, has not had as much action as the Ventura Freeway--or the San Diego, for that matter--in some time. While the 1985 Guinness Book of World Records lists it with a daily average of close to 255,000 vehicles, Illinois state transportation officials say traffic hits those volumes only in peak spring and fall periods, and the expressway's daily average actually is down to about 230,000 at its busiest point near downtown Chicago.

Suburban Job Growth

Joe McDermott, manager of the Illinois Department of Transportation's traffic systems center, admits that the record the highway used to hold "is not something anyone takes pride in." He explained that the traffic averages are down because of the growth of suburban job opportunities, which have diverted traffic that once poured into the central city. Even so, he said, the highway's daily volume would be higher except for the many large trucks, which take up more space on the roadway.

Elsewhere in the nation, some of the busiest routes do not measure up to Los Angeles' Ventura Freeway. Or the San Diego.

In Houston, where there also is a plethora of freeways and cars, the kingpin is the 610 West Loop Freeway. The route's average daily flow is 223,000 vehicles at its busiest point about four miles west of downtown Houston. That is the same as the count on Los Angeles' Santa Ana Freeway at the same distance, four miles, from the Civic Center.

By contrast, the best New York City--glutted by cars, buses, taxis, trucks, subway cars and miscellaneous other vehicles--can do is about 145,000 vehicles a day on the Cross Bronx Expressway near the George Washington Bridge.

Vehicular travel in adjacent New Jersey is much heavier. Nearly 430,000 cars and trucks travel the 118-mile-long New Jersey Turnpike every day. Much of that traffic, though, is concentrated near Newark, where the turnpike--a continuation of Interstate 95 and the Cross Bronx Expressway--carries an average daily traffic load of 170,000 vehicles. August peaks hit 220,000.

Caltrans' preoccupation with traffic counting is not an idle exercise. Wheelock's figures are gathered for an annual traffic report for California highways. All state transportation agencies keep tabs on highway usage, mainly for planning and for monitoring the way their freeways and highways are operating. Another important reason is to determine where gasoline tax money should be spent.

Similarly, the city of Los Angeles and many other municipal transportation agencies are deeply concerned about their own surface street traffic for the same reasons. While this traffic does not often measure up to urban freeway volumes, Los Angeles has several streets where traffic loads surpass most freeways elsewhere as well as some in the Los Angeles area.

Wilshire Is Busiest Street

For example, Wilshire Boulevard, which is No. 1 among the city's streets, has a daily traffic count in Westwood of 106,000 vehicles, far surpassing the Glendale Freeway, which carries 80,000 vehicles daily at its busiest point.

In the meantime, the Ventura has been getting lots of attention, not all of it well received, to help motorists cope with the heavy traffic.

Caltrans built an auxiliary lane near the San Diego Freeway interchange. A traffic-condition message sign and ramp meters to control traffic entering the freeway, both controversial measures, have been installed. New east and westbound lanes also are planned for varying distances west of the San Diego Freeway, with the possibility that the eastbound lane will be designated for buses and car-pools.

Now that the freeway has reached its peak-hour limits, Alan Hendrix, Caltrans deputy district director for planning, concedes that all that remains is to enlarge it by building the extra lanes. "There comes a point when you just can't get any more traffic on it," he said. THE BUSIEST FREEWAYS

Freeway and location Ventura Freeway, west of San Diego Freeway San Diego Freeway, at Santa Monica Boulevard San Diego/Garden Grove Freeway, at Seal Beach Boulevard Santa Monica Freeway, near Crenshaw Boulevard Hollywood Freeway, west of 4-level Interchange Santa Ana Freway, at Indiana Street Harbor Freeway, at 30th Street San Bernardino Freeway, at City Terrace Orange Freeway, at Orangethorpe Avenue Golden State Freeway, at Stadium Way San Gabriel River Freeway I-605, at Alondra Boulevard Long Beach Freeway, near Santa Ana Freeway Foothill Freeway, at Lake Avenue Newport/Costa Mesa Freeway, at Edinger Avenue Pomona Freeway, near San Gabriel River Freeway

Freeway and location Avg. number of vehicles per day Ventura Freeway, west of San Diego Freeway 267,000 San Diego Freeway, at Santa Monica Boulevard 266,000 San Diego/Garden Grove Freeway, at Seal Beach Boulevard 247,000 Santa Monica Freeway, near Crenshaw Boulevard 240,000 Hollywood Freeway, west of 4-level Interchange 240,000 Santa Ana Freway, at Indiana Street 223,000 Harbor Freeway, at 30th Street 215,000 San Bernardino Freeway, at City Terrace 213,000 Orange Freeway, at Orangethorpe Avenue 196,000 Golden State Freeway, at Stadium Way 187,000 San Gabriel River Freeway I-605, at Alondra Boulevard 187,000 Long Beach Freeway, near Santa Ana Freeway 176,000 Foothill Freeway, at Lake Avenue 175,000 Newport/Costa Mesa Freeway, at Edinger Avenue 163,000 Pomona Freeway, near San Gabriel River Freeway 158,000

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