Police Seeking Key to Gridlock on Peninsula

Times Staff Writer

It is called Cruise Control, and Newport Beach police said Monday that they have put it into first gear.

The roadblock set up last weekend to curb teen-age drinking and cruising on the only road into and out of Balboa Peninsula will be repeated this coming weekend--and perhaps every weekend through the summer--to reduce Friday and Saturday night gridlock.

Last Friday and Saturday, between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m., officers routed an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 automobiles from Balboa Boulevard to East Oceanfront, a narrow road that parallels the shore seaward of the boulevard.

There, a 14-officer team recorded license plate numbers and issued tickets to motorists who crossed the checkpoint more than once per night without a legitimate reason. The vehicles were eventually routed in a four-block loop back onto Main Street and then Balboa Boulevard.

Lt. Paul Henisey said 118 citations--25% of them for alcohol-related offenses--were issued at the roadblocks. Only 11 of the tickets were for "cruising."

The other tickets were issued for misdemeanors such as minors in possession of alcohol, illegal turns and for cars not having bumpers or fenders.

There were two felony arrests, Henisey said. One teen-ager was taken to jail on suspicion of assault and battery on an officer for allegedly throwing an avocado that landed on the policeman's shoe. Also, an adult was arrested and booked into jail on suspicion of felony drunk driving, he added.

"I'd say the traffic congestion usually lasts until about 12:30 a.m. on a normal weekend night," Henisey said Monday. "I think it started breaking up Saturday night about 11 p.m. or 11:30 p.m. . . . So that is a good sign."

"We'll definitely do this next weekend," Henisey added, "and, depending on the magnitude of the problem after that, the rest of the weekends this summer."

While the Fourth of July in Newport traditionally creates congested and volatile conditions along the shore, police said, it has only been this year that summer traffic jams have forced motorists to take up to an hour to drive from one end of the three-mile peninsula to the other.

The reopening of the Fun Zone, as well as other new developments in the area of the Balboa Pier, has created an attractive gathering spot for people between 16 and 25 years old--the primary cruising age, Henisey said.

Merchants and residents have complained about the congestion, and a few have also complained about the roadblock, arguing that it contributes to traffic jams, he added. But he said that experiments with the checkpoint showed that it did not worsen the situation.

"Most of the input from the businesses is positive," Henisey said. "We're not eliminating use or access to the peninsula, we're just eliminating the repeat trips. People can go visit a shop or a restaurant still."

The most critical situation created by the gridlock, police said, is that it can delay emergency vehicles.

On Friday night, for example, a Fire Department company summoned to a structure fire perhaps "30 or 40 seconds away" was delayed two or three minutes because of the extreme traffic congestion on the peninsula.

"Fortunately," Henisey said, "it was either a false alarm or not that big of a fire. . . . Even with lights and sirens, there is only so much room to get around all those cars when you have one through street on the peninsula."

The city is hoping that enforcement of the 10 p.m. curfew ordinance and the crackdown on cruising will discourage youths from drinking and driving, Henisey said.

So what is a teen-ager to do on summer weekends in Newport?

"They might have to get back into some old-fashioned thing like bowling or going to the movies," Henisey mused. "As long as they aren't partying in cars or have alcohol on them--that's the major concern."

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