State Scuttles Diamond Lane on 101, Upsets Smog Board

Times Staff Writer

In a decision that prompted a quick threat of legal action from Southern California smog regulators, state highway officials have decided to forgo federal aid in the widening of the Ventura Freeway rather than add a "diamond lane" for car pools and buses.

The state Department of Transportation, in an apparent effort to remove the cloud over the project, said in a letter received by the Federal Highway Administration on Friday that it will pay the full $22 million to expand the 101 Freeway to five lanes each way from Universal City to Topanga Canyon Boulevard.

To the dismay of Caltrans officials, federal highway officials have been studying for months whether to require that the new eastbound lane be a diamond lane as a condition of paying 85% of the project cost. Diamond lanes are restricted to vehicles with at least two people.

Caltrans and federal highway officials agreed Friday, however, that the state would not actually lose any U.S. money as a result of the decision not to seek federal aid for the widening. Available federal aid can be used on other projects.

However, Caltrans' decision drew an angry reaction from leaders of the Southern California Air Quality Management District board.

Lawsuit Threat

In December, the board unanimously voted to sue the Federal Highway Administration if it failed to force Caltrans to revive the diamond lane plan that the agency dropped a year ago in response to widespread opposition.

Friday, a committee of the smog board's directors voted to recommend that the full board express its "extreme displeasure" with Caltrans' latest decision and demand a reconsideration.

Larry Berg, chairman of the smog board's External Affairs Committee, said in an interview that he "would not hesitate to urge the full board to sue Caltrans over this matter. If Caltrans' decision is not a violation of the federal Clean Air Act, it certainly violates the intent of the act. In effect, they are saying to hell with clean air."

Norton Younglove, smog board chairman, predicted that, when the full board meets next Friday, reaction to Caltrans' decision "will range from disappointment to disgust and anger.

"Many will be as flabbergasted as I am that Caltrans is so unconcerned about traffic jams and air pollution," the Riverside County supervisor said.

Younglove said the smog board's advocacy of diamond lanes parallels its new policy of seeking to reduce air pollution by forcing employers to get their workers to form car pools or ride buses.

Smog board officials say they aim to cut rush-hour traffic by as much as 25% with ride-sharing regulations approved in December.

In contrast to the smog board's reaction, federal officials responded mildly to Caltrans' decision.

Bruce Cannon, California administrator for the Federal Highway Administration, said his agency "will have no further interest in the project," and will not try to pressure Caltrans to reverse its decision, although the federal agency's policy is to require that new lanes be diamond lanes wherever feasible.

He said that California will not lose federal money as a result of its withdrawal because "there isn't enough federal money now for all the projects that qualify for federal aid. The federal government gives the state about $1 billion a year, but California probably could use $1.5 billion a year in federal money if we had the funds."

Federal highway officials "leave it up to the state which projects they want to seek our aid on and which ones they do not," he said.

Dean Larson, assistant to Richard DeRosa, Caltrans' project planning chief in Sacramento, said the decision to withdraw the application "was primarily based on the prospect of delay, although added cost also was a factor."

Caltrans engineers have predicted there would be a 12- to 18-month delay and a $10-million increase in cost if the 16-month project, now scheduled to begin in early 1989, is redesigned to include a diamond lane.

The 1-foot buffer required between a diamond lane and its next lane would force Caltrans to move several sound walls. Also, at the intersection with the San Diego Freeway, a bridge would be needed to permit car pools and buses headed east on the Ventura Freeway to exit onto the 405 south without crossing four lanes of traffic.

Unaffected by the diamond lane debate is another widening project set to begin within a few weeks.

In that $20.4-million project, the freeway will be expanded to four lanes each way between Topanga Canyon and Valley Circle boulevards.

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