Love them or hate them, the much-debated car-pool lanes that run on the Costa Mesa Freeway down the middle of Orange County are the busiest in the state. But just wait.
That distinction may not last long. Car-pool lanes are expected to open in two weeks along much of the southbound San Diego Freeway, north of the Costa Mesa Freeway. And by next spring, when the diamond lanes are completed along the entire length of the San Diego Freeway in Orange County, it may well assume the top spot soon after the ribbon is cut, state Department of Transportation officials say.
For the time being, however, the diamond lanes stretching along the Costa Mesa Freeway (California 55) have the record, carrying about 22,000 people a day in each direction. The highway quietly took the top spot in mid-1987 from the El Monte transitway on the San Bernardino Freeway, but the record drew little notice outside Caltrans, officials said.
Today, about 22,000 people use the car-pool lanes in each direction every 24 hours on the Costa Mesa Freeway, followed by nearly 14,000 on the El Monte transitway and about 7,000 on the commuter lane that runs eastbound along California 91.
"We look at it as a successful operation," said Joe El Harake, Orange County commuter-lanes coordinator for Caltrans. "When we opened the car-pool lanes on the 55, we never thought we'd have so much utilization of them. This is a positive thing."
There is, however, a bit of bad news. With the popularity of the car-pool lanes soaring, the average time saved by commuters who use the lanes has dropped. When the lanes were introduced in November, 1985, a motorist could save 17 minutes compared to someone sitting in traffic, El Harake said. Today, the car-pool lane shaves off 10 minutes, he said.
"It's still a very nice incentive," El Harake said. "To the average motorist, that is a tremendous savings, and there is a definite psychological advantage to be in a lane that keeps moving."
Initially opened as a one-year experiment to test the car-pool concept in Orange County, the restricted lanes on the Costa Mesa Freeway have survived a rash of criticism from groups opposed to the notion of setting aside a strip of asphalt for cars with two or more occupants.
Opponents have gone to great lengths to get their point across, doing everything from handing out leaflets to motorists at freeway on-ramps to picketing the Caltrans offices.
In particular, the grass-roots group Drivers for Highway Safety has targeted the freeway's diamond lanes for ridicule, saying they pose a danger by sending commuters zooming within inches of cars poking along in unrestricted lanes congested by traffic.
Joe Catron, president of the group, questioned whether the Costa Mesa Freeway's car-pool lanes truly are the most heavily used, suggesting that Caltrans officials have skewed the statistics to affect the public's opinion of the lanes.
"I don't buy that at all," Catron said. "I definitely would question their numbers. As we have in the past, I would question their counting methods. There's been lots of inaccuracies."
El Harake of Caltrans, however, said the proof is right there on the freeway. The Costa Mesa freeway has been the busiest since mid-1987.
While the El Monte transit-way, which is heavily traveled by commuter-laden buses, features greater flows during peak commuting hours, the Costa Mesa Freeway's commuter lanes have more extended use at other times of the day and night, he said.
Though they flow freely most hours of the day, the Costa Mesa Freeway's car-pool lanes actually carry twice as many people during rush hour as the freeway's other lanes.
The car-pool lane also accommodates more cars than the freeway's other lanes during peak hours. One recent afternoon, for example, the car-pool lane was used by more than 1,500 cars between 5 and 6 p.m. The three other lanes ranged between about 1,400 and 1,100 cars during the hour, El Harake said.
Caltrans officials are eager to open additional car-pool lanes in the county, in particular along the San Diego Freeway.
The San Diego Freeway, the second most heavily traveled highway in the world, just behind the busy Santa Monica Freeway in Los Angeles, is used by as many as 300,000 cars a day along some stretches in Orange County.
A 10-mile section of the northbound car-pool lane was finished between Brookhurst Street and the San Gabriel River Freeway in late spring. In early September, the southbound car-pool lane will be opened from the San Gabriel River Freeway to Fairview Road.
Construction of car-pool lanes along the freeway between Fairview and Interstate 5 is expected to be completed by spring.
Car-pool lanes are also featured in construction plans along Interstate 5. Car-Pool Lanes Existing northbound car-pool lane from Brookhurst St. to the San Gabriel River Freeway Southbound car-pool lane from the San Gabriel River Freeway to the Corona del Mar Freeway will be opened next week. Existing northbound and southbound car-pool lanes form the San Diego to the Riverside freeways