Although rush-hour traffic at Victoria Avenue and U.S. 101 already seems like one endless tangle, more snags could be on the way.
Depending on how the Ventura City Council chooses to handle major industrial projects being proposed for the area, one of Ventura County's seven most troubled intersections might go from unacceptable to worse.
This week, for the second time in a month, the council has allowed a developer to proceed with preliminary plans for a nearby office complex, despite a city traffic policy aimed at limiting construction near such problem spots.
In allowing the plans to proceed, the council warned that final approval will not be given unless the developers are able to reduce traffic from the projects to an acceptable level.
However, there are no standards and no agreement among council members as to what level might be acceptable, especially at an intersection that by the city's own definition has already broken down.
"There are trade-offs here," said Nazir Lalani, the city's transportation and traffic engineer. "If the council would like to see this developed, it's going to have a significant impact on that intersection. . . . There's no getting around that."
As it stands now, in one hour of peak traffic 4,000 anxious commuters knot up narrow lanes that were designed to handle about 1,000 fewer cars. Once a week, at least two vehicles are involved in collisions.
Translated into a letter grade--which city officials throughout the county hand out as a way to measure traffic problems at their busiest intersections--that ranks an "F."
Or, as Ken Merrill of Ventura lamented as he waited for more than eight minutes the other day in a line of about two dozen cars just to enter the intersection: "It's disaster."
Those woes could be compounded by the two recently proposed developments. Chevron USA wants to construct a 300-employee office building on a 14-acre lot between McGrath and Market streets, and the Rospatch Corp. hopes to put an office and optical manufacturing complex for 130 employees on the corner of McGrath Street and Palma Drive.
The Chevron project, which at Monday's council meeting was given approval to develop a traffic management plan, is expected to add 176 vehicles to rush hour traffic, 68 of which would converge on the Victoria Avenue intersection, city engineers said. The Rospatch project, which received similar approval a month ago, would be about half of that, they said.
In a letter to the council, Chevron officials said they believe the project's impact might be less than anticipated. They point out that 200 of the building's future employees are already working in east Ventura offices about 1 1/2 miles from the intersection, and many of them drive through the intersection daily.
In addition, company officials said they have hired a traffic consultant and are working to develop plans, such as staggered work hours and car pools, that would reduce peak hour traffic.
"Chevron recognizes your concern to mitigate the traffic impact of our proposed relocation, and we would like to assure the council that we will be responsive to these traffic needs," wrote a Chevron regional supervisor.
However, the city's traffic policy, which was adopted by the council last March, states that any projects that would impact intersections already at 80% of their capacity will probably be rejected.
When it reaches its "F" level at peak hours, the Victoria Avenue and U.S. 101 interchange operates at more than 100% of its capacity. If the Chevron project were to keep its traffic impact within city guidelines, peak hour traffic from the office complex would have to be reduced by about 70%, Lalani said.
"We don't see any way they can do that," he added.
But council members can make exceptions to the rule. If there are "compelling or overriding" reasons for supporting a proposal, five members of the seven-member council can vote to bypass the guidelines, the city traffic policy states.
Although several other firms in the last year were forced to scuttle development plans after being told that there was little chance for an exception, most council members were impressed by the economic benefits of the 110,000-square-foot Chevron project.
"If we don't go ahead with this plan, and we lose the building, that same intersection will be impacted anyway," said Councilman John McWherter, adding that growth in Oxnard would funnel additional traffic onto Victoria Avenue even if Ventura places a moratorium on development.
"We have to think about what's best for the whole city," he said.
But some other council members expressed reservations about any project that would further affect the troubled Victoria corner.
"That area is not going to be able to tolerate that kind of additional traffic, no matter what," Councilman Don Villeneuve said. "The council is just prolonging the inevitable, and the inevitable is that the intersection just can't handle it."
Councilman John Sullard said that he hopes to strike a compromise that would allow traffic-inducing developments such as Chevron and Rospatch to locate in the area, while forcing the firms to compensate by funding traffic-reduction plans for other nearby companies.
"We're sort of feeling our way on this thing," Sullard said. "These first two will be the guinea pigs. We'll learn from these and try to set standards that are practical and workable."
Ultimately, Ventura city officials say they would like to redesign the entire intersection, probably moving one of its main feeders, Valentine Road, at least 100 feet to the south, and building a new freeway on-ramp for southbound traffic from Victoria Avenue.
While no details are available on such a plan, the average cost of redesigning an intersection, without having to buy additional property or condemn right-of-ways, is about $6 million, Lalani said.
Officials in other cities with "F" intersections also are hoping to ease congestion at their trouble spots.
Those intersections include Erringer Road and Los Angeles Avenue in Simi Valley; Spring Road and New Los Angeles Avenue in Moorpark; Seaward Avenue and Harbor Boulevard in Ventura; and the Thousand Oaks intersections of Lynn Road and U.S. 101, Hampshire Road and the northbound off-ramp of U.S. 101, and Hampshire Road and the southbound off-ramp of U.S. 101.
Frustration to Continue
In the meantime, motorists will continue to sit in frustration as they face long rush-hour delays produced by intersections that have simply outgrown their capacity.
In Ventura, approaching the Victoria Avenue/U.S. 101 intersection from Valentine Road, commuters have to wait through as many as five or six 100-second signal cycles to make a left turn onto Victoria Avenue.
Going south on Victoria Avenue, drivers, many of whom are coming from the county Government Center, get snarled in gridlock as they try to squeeze through the freeway overpass and make a left turn onto the southbound ramp of U.S. 101.
At peak hours, Ventura police often dispatch a motorcycle squad of four officers just to patrol Victoria Avenue against red-light runners and gridlock perpetrators.
For David Evans, general manager of Salzer's record store at the northwest corner of Victoria Avenue and Valentine Road, the prospect of fighting traffic is enough to even keep him at work several hours later than his 4 p.m. quitting time.
"I usually stay 'till 6 or 7, just so I can get out," he said. "It's pretty hellish. You don't find a lot of gracious drivers at that time of day."