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Little Relief in Sight : San Diego’s Traffic Starts to Resemble Los Angeles’

Times Staff Writer

The marriage between San Diego motorists and their freeways is turning from honeymoon to headache.

Local commuters, lulled and spoiled by one of the finest interstate highway systems in the nation to serve a metropolitan area, are nonetheless doomed to Los Angeles-proportion traffic congestion and there’s not much they can do about it, traffic experts say.

If traffic seems bad now, it’s because motorists have for years driven an expansive intracity freeway system built more to benefit the area’s defense industry and military bases than to meet the demand of the individual private motorist. Only now is San Diego literally growing into its freeways and filling them up during rush hours. And to motorists used to driving at speeds in excess of 50 m.p.h. during peak commuter hours, the idea of slowing to 30 or 40 m.p.h. is perceived as congestion and draws nasty references to Los Angeles.

But it’s all relative; to out-of-towners, San Diego today does not have serious traffic problems, and, compared to other large cities in California, San Diego motorists have little reason to grumble. After all, there are some large companies in Los Angeles that have car-pool express lanes just to get out of the parking lot.

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But the fact is, traffic in San Diego will be getting worse, and quickly, for reasons that have regional traffic planners helpless:

- The same canyons and mesas, lagoons and bays, mountains and lakes that give San Diego its physical charm also hamstring planners searching for feasible highway routes to relieve congested ones.

- There isn’t enough money to build the roads that traffic planners say are needed. Because San Diego County got so much money years ago for its interstate system, the state gave the county less for its state highways. But now the state is more concerned about completing the interstate system in other places, so San Diego County won’t get nearly enough to finish state routes. A local transit tax measure may be on the ballot next year but its success is hardly assured.

- If--and that’s a big if--all of the new highways and freeways that local planners call for are constructed, the area’s population growth will increase at an even faster clip.

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- Not only is the population growing faster than the freeway system, but the number of qualified drivers and the number of registered vehicles in the region are both increasing at a faster rate than the population. Furthermore, not only will there be more motorists per capita than there are today, but they will make more trips per day, drive longer stretches at a time and share rides less often, studies predict. Over the next 20 years, there will be a 34% increase in the region’s population--and a 64% increase in daily miles traveled, researchers say.

Primary Cause

While the day will come when San Diego’s freeways will become overcrowded and take on traits of Los Angeles’ burdened system, the fact is that, today, most traffic headaches in San Diego County are caused by motorists themselves, not the system.

Most significant traffic jams can be attributed to vehicle accidents, rubbernecking, poor driving behavior, bad weather or such events as a Monday night Chargers football game, according to the state Department of Transportation, the California Highway Patrol and aerial observations of rush-hour traffic.

There are only a relative few places in the county where the motorist is the victim of traffic congestion through no fault of his own--such as the merger of eight lanes of traffic into four lanes where Interstates 5 and 805 converge in North City and on the curving, two-lane California 163 through Balboa Park.

Consider the fact that, when it is accident-free, westbound Interstate 8 approaching Waring Road carries more cars per minute between 6:45 and 7:45 a.m. than any other freeway in the world, according to Caltrans engineer Ray Granstedt.

The reason, he said, is because that particular stretch of freeway is a “downhill sag,” giving motorists good sight distance to see and anticipate what’s ahead. That allows them to drive closer to one another than they might otherwise while still maintaining a relatively high speed--the two ingredients that lead to high freeway volume. Furthermore, Granstedt characterizes the morning rush-hour motorists as more “traffic savvy” than those who join the freeways later in the day because they are daily, no-nonsense practitioners of freeway driving and are familiar with the routine. Finally, he notes, there is less commercial and truck traffic on the freeway that time of day, and the Waring on-ramp onto the freeway becomes a fifth lane, so new traffic does not have to merge onto the four existing lanes.

Busy Stretch

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Combined, those elements make that stretch of Interstate 8 the most efficient freeway in the world; while freeways are expected to carry up to 2,000 cars per lane per hour (based on cars traveling at 50 m.p.h. and spaced two seconds apart, the two factors that combine to create the highest theoretical freeway volume), this stretch carries as many as 2,600 cars per lane per hour, traffic counts show.

But, Granstedt hastens to add, that stretch is approaching “breakdown” in that the addition of even 100 more cars per lane per hour will cause traffic to slow, thereby decreasing the overall volume of traffic. The challenge, then, to traffic managers who can’t magically create new freeway lanes is to limit freeway volume to the optimum by encouraging motorists to turn to car pools or mass transit; to restrict the flow of additional cars onto the freeway through the use of signalized, metered on-ramps, or to so frustrate the motorist with delays at the on-ramp that he looks for alternate routes.

Peak-hour traffic congestion should be considered a sign of fiscal responsibility, suggests Manuel Puentes, a transportation engineer for the Automobile Club of Southern California.

“We have to tolerate some congestion because we can’t afford to accommodate the peak demand on our freeways,” Puentes said. “If we built a freeway with that many lanes, it would be underutilized most of the time,” and, therefore, a waste of money.

Currently, according to travel studies, nine miles of San Diego County freeways--representing about 5% of all freeway miles in the region--experience “heavy congestion” during rush hours--a technical term meaning that the flow of traffic generally does not exceed 20 m.p.h. and is marked by varying degrees of stop-and-go traffic along the way, for periods of up to two hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon.

Those nine miles are California 163 through Balboa Park, Interstate 8 between Interstate 15 and 70th Street-Lake Murray Boulevard, and again along Interstate 8 between California 125 and Main Street in El Cajon.

Look to Future

Even under the best of circumstances in the year 2005--including the construction of an additional 84 miles of freeways and expressways and the expansion of the light-rail trolley system throughout the county--there will still be 33 miles of “heavily congested” freeways--nearly four times as bad as now, according to an exhaustive study by the San Diego Assn. of Governments (Sandag).

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Under that best-case scenario, the worst traffic in the region 20 years from now will be along Interstate 5 north of the Interstate 805 interchange in Sorrento Valley and through Del Mar and North City West. Traffic along that stretch will be as bad as the Santa Monica Freeway in Los Angeles is now, transportation experts say.

In addition, “heavy congestion” will be experienced on California 163 between downtown and Interstate 8; on California 94 from downtown San Diego to Interstate 805; Interstate 5 through downtown and again through National City; Interstate 8 through Mission Valley from Interstate 5 to California 163 and again from Interstate 15 to College Avenue; Interstate 15 from the junction of California 163 to Poway Road-Penasquitos Boulevard and again through Rancho Bernardo from Camino del Norte to Lake Hodges, and on the proposed California 56-California 125 loop through Poway, assuming it is even built.

Under the worst of scenarios--assuming no new highway and expressway construction--78 miles of freeway--or 39% of the entire freeway system--will be “heavily congested” by the year 2005, Sandag researchers predict.

Continuous stop-and-go traffic for two-hour periods in the morning and three-hour periods in the afternoon will be the routine for rush-hour commuters along:

- Interstate 5 between the Interstate 805-Sorrento Valley junction and Manchester Avenue, between Balboa Avenue and Washington Street, through the downtown “S” curve, and from Interstate 15 through National City.

- Interstate 805 between Interstate 8 to south of Imperial Avenue, and again through National City.

- Interstate 15 between Interstate 5 and Interstate 805 in the South Bay, through Murphy Canyon near Tierrasanta, and the entire distance between the Miramar Naval Air Station and Escondido’s Centre City Parkway.

- Interstate 8, virtually the entire stretch from Interstate 5 to Main Street in El Cajon.

- California 94 between downtown San Diego and Lemon Grove, and the California 125 link between California 94 and Interstate 8.

- California 78 between Interstate 5 and El Camino Real.

San Diego transportation planners say there is not much that could have been done differently 20 or 30 years ago to have avoided the inevitable traffic jams that will become more commonplace at the turn of the century.

Interstate System

Emphasis in the 1950s and 1960s was on the construction of the interstate system, at a time when the federal government was eager to build a highway network to link key industrial, defense and military centers across the country.

Not only did San Diego qualify on the weight of its defense industry and naval bases, but the area also benefited by its positioning in the southwest corner of the United States, thereby becoming a terminus for both north-south Interstate 5, east-west Interstate 8, and the diagonal Interstate 15, which heads into the region by way of Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.

“Perhaps the best freeway system in the world today is ours,” said Bill Tuomi, a senior transportation planner for Sandag. “We’ve got four interstates, and 80% of the highway money we’ve gotten over the past 20 years has gone to improving those routes.”

But because matching construction funds from Sacramento went toward that interstate system, the area was shortchanged on more conventional highway construction.

For instance, San Diego-based Caltrans engineers in 1957 wanted California 76 east of Oceanside to be developed as a full-fledged freeway to link Interstate 5 with Interstate 15. They also wanted an eight-lane right-of-way purchased for the route of California 78 between south Oceanside and Escondido, and for California 78 to continue eastward through Escondido, all the way to the Salton Sea.

Neither of Caltrans’ dreams was realized because there was insufficient state highway money to go around, and San Diego’s share was earmarked to help construct the federal interstate system. Furthermore, Escondido officials balked at the idea of a freeway bisecting their city.

North County Problems

So today, there’s no money to turn California 76 into a freeway; California 78 is only a four-lane freeway along a six-lane right-of-way between Oceanside and Escondido, and it dissolves into surface streets in Escondido, adding to that city’s surface street traffic woes and causing officials there to second guess the earlier decision.

In fact, only about half of the highways and freeways sought by Caltrans in its 1957 blueprint for San Diego County have been constructed, notes Jake Dekema, who headed the Caltrans regional office in San Diego for years before retiring in 1980.

“We’re way behind on non-interstate needs, and now that the interstates are becoming congested, we’re starting to feel the bind,” Sandag’s Tuomi said.

With the state hard-pressed just to maintain existing highways and trying to finish the interstate system in other areas, there is less money available from Sacramento to build state highways in San Diego County. Sacramento is encouraging local governments to finance the construction of their own highways.

But San Diego falls far short in being able to pay for the local transportation and transit improvements that planners say are needed to ease motorists into the year 2005 with as little trauma as possible. The price tag for the wish list is estimated at $10 billion, but at best only $5.4 billion will be generated by federal, state and local sources over the next 20 years--leaving the area $4.6 billion short to pay for what needs to be done, based on the most current estimates compiled by Sandag.

One option calls for voters to approve a half-cent sales tax increase that would generate about $2.3 billion over 20 years--half of the shortfall. That influx of cash could then be used to leverage greater state and federal support, the logic goes.

1987 Ballot

But Sandag, the lead agency calling for the sales tax measure, has decided not to push the measure until November, 1987, at the soonest because of another half-cent sales tax measure that will be on the ballot this November to help finance new jail construction. Sandag decided that voters would not be willing to approve both measures at the same time.

Planners also were unsure whether voters have yet perceived a serious, pending traffic problem facing San Diego County.

“Some communities respond to (highway) planning because they perceive the need to address future traffic problems,” said Mike Zdon, another senior transportation planner for Sandag. “The question is, do people here perceive a problem?”

Once a region falls behind on its transportation needs, it is hard to catch up, Zdon and others say. Not only is it more difficult to acquire right-of-way for highways because of the growth that already has occurred, but projects simply cost more money, and more stringent environmental and engineering guidelines protract the process. While it used to take five years to plan, design and construct a freeway, it now takes 10 years or longer.

Traffic managers hope commuters will turn to public transit and car pooling, but they have doubts if they will.

“A lot of people who have moved to San Diego from other metropolitan areas may have used public transit there, but don’t see the need to use it here because the traffic isn’t as bad here, compared to where they came from,” said Jean Carr, Sandag’s communications director.

“The success of public transit is passed by word of mouth, not by advertising. So if relatively few people use it now, relatively few others are hearing about it and so few will want to try it.”

Car pooling is not only not becoming more popular in San Diego, it is becoming less popular, despite increasing traffic congestion.

Vehicle Occupancy

Just a few years ago, the vehicle occupancy rate was 1.25 persons per car; today it is 1.17, according to Sandag statistics. The reasons for the decline are a decreased interest in car pooling because fuel prices have declined in recent years, people are driving smaller cars and are less eager to share available space with co-workers, adequate parking exists at most work places, and few people work in the same areas as their neighbors.

Perhaps most telling of all, motorists haven’t felt compelled to double up in cars because they don’t think the congestion is all that bad, traffic planners say.

“People in Los Angeles tolerate driving an hour to get to work because it’s been such an insidious build-up of traffic. It’s like growing old,” Granstedt said.

“The same is happening in San Diego,” he said. “Five years ago, the peak driving time was between 7 and 8 a.m. Now, in order to avoid delays, the motorists are starting earlier in the morning. Their drive time isn’t any worse; it’s just that they’re leaving home earlier.”

Despite anxiety about what the future holds, area transportation experts say San Diego is, and will remain, in better shape than most other metropolitan regions, including Los Angeles--not only because it is not as large but because the city is younger and has been better able to plan for the future.

“There were no planning schools 30 years ago. It’s a new art, and the new communities can benefit,” Zdon said. “We’ve been able to acclimate to a changing financial picture and build a flexible, affordable transit system. The choice of the future is now. We’re at a crossroads. And we can either do something now to retain the quality of life or we will be doomed to play catch-up, and that’s hard to do.”


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