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Via Ventura Freeway : Bottlenecks, Bumps Fray Nerves, Jam Rush Hour

Times Staff Writer

If, as the saying goes, a camel is a horse designed by a committee, then the Ventura Freeway is a roadway designed by a committee--of engineers who never met.

At least, that’s the way it drives, as exasperated San Fernando Valley motorists learn anew each day.

Speed up and slow down. Merge as lanes disappear, then spread out as the lanes reappear, then merge again. Ribbon-smooth pavement, then crumbling sections that push shock absorbers and springs to the limit.

In the next month or two, the state Department of Transportation will begin a $90-million make-over of the freeway from Thousand Oaks to Universal City.

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When the dust and nerves settle down in 1990, the bumpy, chaotic Ventura Freeway of today will be just a disagreeable memory.

Caltrans engineers say that the born-again U.S. 101 will have both a rattle-free surface and a width that pretty much matches traffic demand. The freeway should flow smoothly, at least until congestion builds again in a year or two.

A free-flowing freeway would be a dramatic change. At present, rush-hour drives between Woodland Hills and downtown Los Angeles often take up to 90 minutes, and Thousand Oaks to downtown has become an epic trek lasting as long as two hours.

Limited Space

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A morning rush-hour drive on the freeway begins auspiciously enough in Thousand Oaks, with four lanes of traffic heading into the sun. These Ventura County suburbanites travel at the speed limit or beyond, headed for a rendezvous with their Valley counterparts on a freeway without space to accommodate them both.

Except for the mornings after holidays, when traffic begins backing up at Las Virgenes Road, the first hint of the turmoil to come typically occurs as motorists power down the east slope of the Calabasas Grade.

Defying rational explanation, the Ventura Freeway narrows as it enters the nation’s second-largest city--from four lanes each way to three lanes.

For more than a decade, local elected officials have been angry at Caltrans for refusing to assign a high priority to widening what critics call the “infamous Woodland Hills bottleneck,” a two-mile stretch of three lanes each way between Valley Circle and Topanga Canyon boulevards.

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The $20.4-million widening of the bottleneck to four lanes each way tentatively is scheduled to begin late this month or in January.

When it is completed, the freeway will be four lanes each way from Topanga to the Conejo Grade west of Thousand Oaks. And it will be five lanes each way from Topanga to Universal City.

For the eastbound morning commuter, the trudge through the bottleneck is followed, east of Topanga, with a brief speedup as vehicles spread out onto four lanes.

Short Party

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But the party is short-lived, typically ending in a sea of brake lights on the downslope of Chalk Hill immediately west of Winnetka Avenue. This time the slowdown is not related to a narrowing of the freeway.

Caltrans engineers explain the speedup and slowdown that occurs between Topanga and Winnetka thusly: The bottleneck constricts the flow of cars onto the four-lane section, resulting in a free-flowing freeway that briefly appears to have surplus space. But the “surplus” quickly evaporates as Topanga, Canoga Avenue, De Soto Avenue and finally Winnetka inject large numbers of motorists into the eastbound stream. Also, newly arrived motorists are more likely to change lanes, causing even more congestion.

After Winnetka, the freeway chugs along for several miles, gradually picking up speed as the stream adjusts to the new arrivals.

But the promise of free flow is snatched away as the brake lights reappear at White Oak Avenue. Traffic engineers say the problem there is simply overload, caused by too many motorists trying to get onto a freeway already at capacity.

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But there is a special twist to the agony that eastbound motorists endure each morning at White Oak.

In the early and mid-1970s, Caltrans incrementally expanded the freeway to five lanes westbound from Van Nuys Boulevard to White Oak, the better to accommodate vehicles entering from and leaving for the San Diego Freeway.

But on the eastbound side, Caltrans sought to save money by expanding to five lanes only between Van Nuys Boulevard and Hayvenhurst Avenue. That left a 1 1/2-mile bottleneck between the freeway’s saturation point at White Oak and the five-lane section that begins at Hayvenhurst.

For more than a decade, the daily White Oak-to-Hayvenhurst slowdown has been the target of bitter complaints at public meetings.

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In any case, travelers east of Hayvenhurst experience another euphoric speedup, flying past the point at which Caltrans has measured an average of 270,000 vehicles daily, earning the Ventura the dubious distinction of being the nation’s busiest freeway.

Again, the gaiety is short-lived. Merging traffic from the San Diego Freeway quickly mires even this five-lane section of the Ventura.

And when the freeway narrows again to four lanes at Van Nuys Boulevard, all hope is lost that traffic might sort itself out and flow smoothly.

After Van Nuys Boulevard, the Ventura remains four lanes until its intersection with the Hollywood Freeway. And it remains stop-and-go, gradually worsening as motorists from Sherman Oaks and Studio City join the fray.

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For those headed south on the Hollywood, bad turns to worse. Traffic engineers say that, in terms of world-class congestion, the one-mile section of the Hollywood immediately south of the Ventura ranks with the gridlocked approaches to downtown.

Except for the peak of morning rush hour, traffic once again begins to flow freely at the Hollywood’s intersection with Lankershim Boulevard, where the freeway widens to five lanes.

But between 8 and 9 a.m., relief often does not arrive before the crest of the Cahuenga Pass, a mile farther south.

Motorists zip down the south side of the pass, seemingly destined for an easy spin to the skyscrapers of downtown, which are just coming into view on a clear day.

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But there is much congestion ahead, some of it resulting from the fact that the Hollywood, like the ill-planned Ventura, several times narrows to four lanes and then expands again to five.

But even with a constant-width freeway, traffic experts say, the trek from the Valley to downtown is bound to end inauspiciously because so many vehicles from so many freeways are fighting for scarce space on streets and parking lots.


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