Driven to Distraction : Critics Say Congestion Is Strangling Coast Highway

Times Staff Writer

On weekday mornings and on beach days, a torrent of traffic from the San Fernando Valley pours through the Malibu canyons, emptying onto Pacific Coast Highway. At such times, the locals speak wistfully of tollbooths.

They long for a guard and a gate, strategically placed at each through-road intersection with PCH to discourage, or even staunch, the flow of cars. As Joan Knapp, a 20-year Malibu resident, wished out loud recently: "Let's put in a little turnpike like they have in the East and charge those valley people to use our highway." She was only partly joking.

Tollbooths are just one of the solutions the state has considered in 20 years of studying PCH congestion in the Malibu area. There also has been talk of a parallel expressway through the mountains, a causeway in the ocean and a double-decker freeway where the road now runs.

But those schemes have been discarded while the residents, in classic Malibu fashion, learned to put up with what they cannot change.

Now, however, many are convinced that the time for mere coping has passed.

Critical Issue

The fate of the coast highway has become a critical issue as state and local agencies shape Malibu's future, deciding on the general location and number of additional houses, hotels and restaurants--all of which would generate more traffic.

The stretch of PCH from the Santa Monica Freeway to the county line is the only direct link between Los Angeles and Malibu. The roadway passes through a storied Southern California landscape, filled with surfers, celebrities, sandy beaches and craggy mountains. As a result, it is used by the population of Malibu (about 20,000) as well as valley commuters who want to avoid the clogged Ventura Freeway, 13 miles to the north, and tourists from all over the Los Angeles Basin.

They must fit into two lanes in each direction along most of the route; at times even that space is narrowed by landslides or floods. And with geologically unstable cliffs on one side of the highway and expensive beachfront houses on the other, there is little room for widening.

If Los Angeles County's preliminary land-use plans are adopted, the California Department of Transportation foresees a 33% increase in traffic by the year 2000. Each day nearly 92,000 vehicles-- up from the current 69,000-- enough to justify building a freeway, would pass through the McClure Tunnel, where the Santa Monica Freeway and PCH meet. Morning and evening congestion would last two hours.

Critics Wonder

Caltrans officials say they are confident they can improve PCH to keep pace with development. But critics wonder if that is so. They claim that Caltrans has underestimated the amount of potential traffic under the county plan--and add that the method of improvement could cause as many problems as it solves.

The state Coastal Commission, state Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara), whose district includes Malibu, and the Malibu Township Council, a civic organization, have all asked Caltrans to reveal its specific intentions for PCH so that informed decisions can be made about how much future construction to allow.

"We want to know what they're going to do, exactly how they're going to do it, when they're going to do it and where the money will come from," said Madelyn Glickfeld, who chairs the township council's land-use committee.

Caltrans has other priorities, said Allan H. Hendrix, Caltrans deputy director for planning in Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties. There are other, more congested routes in the Los Angeles area that must be dealt with before PCH can be studied in detail, he said.

For those with concerns that Caltrans cannot improve PCH, "The only answer we've got is, 'We're sure we can do it, folks,' " Hendrix said. But, he added, "the solutions are going to have trade-offs and they're going to be very, very controversial."

At this point, Hendrix said, the most likely scenario is this: The highway will gain at least one other lane without taking up any more space.

And that means "we'll have to take parking" from alongside PCH, Hendrix said. "We'll probably have to take a lot of parking."

Rare Agreement

The prospect brings many coast highway residents and beach visitors from elsewhere into rare agreement. They object.

"I think that's ridiculous," said Bill Kay, a 29-year-old advertising copywriter who lives on PCH. He owns a Jeep, a Mustang and a Mercedes roadster; his apartment entitles him to just one space in a carport. He keeps two cars on the shoulder.

"That would be a disaster," said Sheila Gordon, a 24-year-old from Woodland Hills who comes to the beach every weekend. "It's bad enough already. During the summer, even the $3 lots are packed."

Caltrans has few other choices. High costs, the expectation of heavy environmental damage and public outcry doomed earlier, more ambitious plans.

Already, Caltrans has banned large trucks, except those making local deliveries or pick-ups, from PCH. And traffic flow has been eased by synchronizing stop signals.

More small changes are planned, but "I think we've tweaked it about as much as we can tweak it," said David H. Roper, Caltrans deputy district director for operations.

The state has allocated money to add one lane in each direction to the Ventura Freeway between Topanga Canyon Boulevard and the San Diego Freeway within the next five years. That could tempt some of the valley commuters who make up 20% of the PCH traffic away from the coast highway and back to the Ventura Freeway. But the relief would only be temporary, Roper said.

Reversible Lane

The freeway will quickly fill up again and commuters will once more make their way to PCH--"It's water seeking its own level," Roper said.

So, Caltrans officials have concluded, an additional lane in each direction--or a reversible lane-- will be necessary on PCH, simply to keep the traffic moving in the future at the level it does now.

"This could well be along the lines of shoulder use," Hendrix said, "but it may be during peak hours only."

No decisions have been made, he said. "We're not going to develop a specific plan until we've met with the residents out there and heard what they have to say."

For those who live on PCH, the prevailing reaction is anger.

They agree that more room for the traffic is needed. They all have PCH war stories--of missing a turn at Big Rock Beach but having to drive into Santa Monica to reverse direction . . . of taking turns with neighbors doing everyone's shopping to reduce trips to the grocery store . . . of parking one family car at the west end of a landslide blocking the road, parking another car at the east end and walking every day for weeks across the fallen rock between the two.

Still, they're not prepared to sacrifice the shoulder parking. Many have more cars than parking spaces and many have adapted to the PCH congestion by working at home or traveling to their jobs after 9 a.m.

So, even if parking restrictions were limited to peak traffic hours, a number of the residents would be affected.

"It brings back memories of alternate-side-of-the-street parking in New York, when everybody would dash out of their houses at 7 a.m. to move their cars," said Kay, the advertising writer. "Except that here, there's no place else to move your car."

Remote Lot

The state Coastal Commission might also be upset by parking restrictions, because they would reduce public beach access, said lead analyst Steve Scholl. Caltrans would probably have to replace the lost parking somewhere else, Scholl said.

"They could have a remote lot. Maybe they could have parking in Agoura and have a bus going to the beach," Scholl said. "That may be difficult for Caltrans to deal with. But the need is important and it needs to be met."

Safety is another concern voiced by PCH residents. Many of the houses along the highway have been built right up to the shoulder. If it became a traffic lane, cars would be whizzing within a few feet of these front doors and garage exits.

"You need about 10 feet just to pull out of your garage," said Steve Gannon, a 41-year-old actor who has lived in Malibu for 15 years.

Jackie Sutton knows what Gannon means. Even with the shoulder as a buffer, her PCH house has been hit by cars three times in the last 10 years. "Our garage was destroyed; our home was set on fire," she said. "When they talk about increasing lanes out there and taking the shoulder, they're talking about committing a felony as far as I'm concerned."

The situation leaves the Caltrans officials perplexed. "We'd like to retain everything we have out there and still add room, but we can't," Roper said. "So how do we resolve this?"

Until they do, Scholl said he recommends a cap on development after 2,110 housing units are built--less than half the number to be allowed in Malibu under the county's proposal. The rest could be constructed when the capacity of the highway is increased.

But Los Angeles County would have to agree to put such a cap into effect. Bob Hoie, who has supervised the county's planning of Malibu, said the cap is "a pretty simplistic approach to the issue" which has previously been rejected by the county. Hoie said the proposal does not distinguish between different types of development that would have varying impacts upon PCH.

So the arguments continue. Said Glickfeld, of the Township Council: "What we don't want to see is a case where the development happens and the improvements don't. Then you'd have gridlock."

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