After about 20 years of bureaucratic wrangling and who knows how many stalled commutes, Caltrans is forcing Hermosa Beach to clear out one of the most notorious bottlenecks on Pacific Coast Highway.
In a letter that arrived Monday at City Hall, the District 7 director of the state transportation agency gave the city until Feb. 1 to begin banning parking on the west side of Pacific Coast Highway during the evening rush hour. And if Hermosa Beach refuses, director J. B. Baxter warned, Caltrans will do the honors itself.
“This is really going to cramp our style,” groused Jerry Whisman, a sales manager for the city’s biggest taxpayer, the Vasek Polak auto dealerships that line Pacific Coast Highway in Hermosa Beach.
“Our parking here is absolutely horrendous as it is. If they take away the parking out front, it’ll definitely affect us.”
But City Manager Kevin Northcraft said the city’s options are limited.
“What can I say?” Northcraft sighed. “After all, it’s their road.”
At issue is the daily rush-hour logjam that occurs on the southbound side of the highway, where Hermosa Beach has for decades permitted merchants to offer curbside parking.
In the early 1970s, Manhattan Beach to the north placed a rush-hour ban on such parking, clearing the far west lane for commuters. But despite pressure from the California Department of Transportation to follow suit, Hermosa Beach authorities refused, arguing that a parking ban in their city would put local merchants out of business and create an expressway in the heart of town.
Consequently, Hermosa Beach has become a navigational annoyance for work-weary commuters who chug along by the thousands in three lanes through Manhattan Beach only to squeeze irritably into two at the city line.
“I always know when I enter the city of Hermosa Beach because the traffic just stops!” complained a Lomita commuter in a 1989 letter to Caltrans that was forwarded to the city during Caltrans’ most recent effort to win a parking ban.
Nor has that been the only complaint to reach bureaucratic ears. This year, for example, the El Segundo Employers’ Assn. brought up the Hermosa Beach logjam not only with the city and Caltrans, but also with the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
Karl F. Berger, an associate transportation engineer for Caltrans, said the agency has always had legal authority to ban parking whether the city likes it or not. But the agency has always sought a joint restriction because Caltrans would have to rely on the city to enforce the ban.
But in recent years, Berger said, the agency has become increasingly impatient with the city. Caltrans studies have shown that Hermosa Beach’s stretch of Pacific Coast Highway has a higher accident rate than any similar stretch of the coast highway in Los Angeles County, with “almost double the amount of accidents that we would expect at this location.”
Berger said the Hermosa Beach section of the highway has 5.33 accidents per million vehicle miles, compared to the expected rate of 3.30. (A vehicle mile is a measure of the average amount of traffic on a stretch of roadway each day.)
Other studies have shown that the single lane of parking inconveniences about 56,000 drivers a day and costs them more than $650,000 a year in wasted gasoline and vehicle maintenance, he said.
“We’ve been fighting this battle for 20 years,” Berger said, “and through one change of administration after another, the city has stonewalled us. We had to take action. This is not just a local problem, but one of regional impact.”
Berger said the final straw came when the agency got a letter in October from Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee. Noting that “the obstinacy of a single city” can sometimes be “a major obstacle to . . . common-sense projects,” Katz wanted to know what Caltrans intended to do about the Hermosa Beach bottleneck.
District Director Baxter’s reply was to crack down on the city.
Public Works Director Anthony Antich said he believes the move will only shift the bottleneck to the Redondo Beach city line, where the highway narrows to a width that can only accommodate two lanes.
“We’ve always doubted that this will be the panacea everybody expects,” he said.
Hermosa Beach Mayor Chuck Sheldon added that the City Council will meet later this month to decide whether to contest the edict in court. The council, he said, is split on the issue.
Personally, Sheldon said, he has mixed feelings about following through on the Caltrans ultimatum.
“But there are some people who say, ‘Fine--let ‘em do it. We just won’t enforce it,’ ” the mayor said.