A bit behind schedule but close to budget, the Ventura Freeway widening is winding down, bringing nearer the day when traffic experts can answer the question: Is there any number of lanes that can handle all the drivers yearning to travel across the San Fernando Valley?
One of the nation's busiest, the Ventura Freeway had eight to 10 hours of congestion a day before the $40-million widening began in November, 1989.
Experts disagree somewhat on how the expanded freeway will fare when the last barricades come down, probably in April. But nobody is predicting a motoring Valhalla in the Valley.
"I think it will flow more smoothly for a year, maybe two, then it will be as bad as it was before the expansion," said David Roper, the state Department of Transportation's Southern California deputy district director.
"It's going to be a mess in about three days" after the new lanes are opened, predicted William Brady, a Canoga Park-based private traffic consultant. "The new capacity isn't much compared to the phenomenal demand, so I think motorists will simply spread out and fill up all the new space."
When finished, the Ventura Freeway will be five lanes each way from Topanga Canyon Boulevard in Woodland Hills to Universal City, with a mile-long, six-lane eastbound section just west of the San Diego Freeway.
Also, most of the surface is being repaved, so there should be a smoother ride to go with the added capacity.
Roper and other transportation officials who expect a post-widening congestion reprieve say that it will be increased residential development that will once again swamp the thoroughfare.
They also say that even if the housing boom does not immediately resume and generate a new crop of cross-Valley commuters, the widened freeway will succumb to rush-hour gridlock from the return of those who have escaped congestion by using alternative routes or driving in off-peak hours.
These gridlock refugees, who are expected to be lured back by the promise of a widened, fast-moving freeway, include parents ferrying children to and from schools and drivers headed to medical appointments. Also expected are the small army of motorists from Ventura County who avoid the Valley entirely by using mountain roads to cut over to Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu to head into Los Angeles.
Caltrans officials term these motorists the Z traffic because of the shape of the route they pursue rather than enter the Valley.
"There is tremendous latent demand for space on that freeway," said Wallace Rothbart, Caltrans' project studies chief in Southern California. "We feel that a lot of trips aren't being taken because of the congestion, or are being taken at odd hours, or less-preferred routes are being used."
A 1989 study by the Southern California Assn. of Governments predicted that by 2010, the Ventura Freeway would need to be a minimum of six lanes each way from Woodland Hills to the Hollywood Freeway to hold congestion at today's level.
And the heavily traveled stretch from Reseda Boulevard to the San Diego Freeway--where Caltrans now counts 277,000 vehicles a day--would have to be seven lanes each way, the report said.
Rothbart said Caltrans seeks to limit all freeways to five lanes each way, occasionally providing a short sixth lane--such as the soon-to-be-opened stretch of the Ventura Freeway west of the San Diego Freeway--that does not continue beyond the next major off-ramp or intersecting freeway.
"But seven lanes just doesn't work well," he said. "The confusion from cars crossing all those lanes to get on and off would be too great. I don't believe there are any such segments in California."
Along the Ventura Freeway, which was chopped out of existing suburbia in the 1950s and early '60s, there is no room for expansion beyond the current project, Caltrans officials say. Homes and stores crowd the right of way on both sides.
To accommodate the fifth lanes, crews are taking nearly half the median, pushing the shoulders out with new retaining walls in some places and reducing lane width by one foot, to 11 feet.
With the right-of-way limits in mind, Caltrans in 1988 studied whether the freeway could accommodate an upper deck. The study concluded that a second deck could be built either in the median or along the northern shoulder.
"We designed it with two lanes each way or with one lane each way and also with a rail line," Rothbart said, "and decided it could work both ways."
Homeowner group leaders fiercely attacked the proposal, saying the upper deck would bring noise and visual blight to neighborhoods already reeling from freeway racket.
Since then, the proposal has been dormant, if only because all road-building money in California has already been allocated through the turn of the century.
Also, the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission is considering the Ventura Freeway as one of two possible cross-Valley railroad routes.
Caltrans officials, who are encouraging use of the freeway median for the pillars that would support elevated tracks, hope that a mass transit line will postpone the need for more lanes.
The commission is expected to decide later this year or early next year whether to build an elevated monorail or magnetic-levitation line along the freeway from Universal City to Warner Center.
The rival plan is an extension of the downtown Metro Rail subway westward from North Hollywood to Warner Center along a little-used rail right of way recently purchased from Southern Pacific railroad.
After 18 months of work, the fruits of the present widening are beginning to be evident.
From the San Diego Freeway west to Topanga Canyon Boulevard, the freeway is a smoothly paved five lanes, giving homeward-bound commuters a lightly congested sprint through the West Valley.
Largely eliminated is the slowdown that westbound motorists encountered for nearly two decades at White Oak Avenue, where the freeway narrowed to four lanes after expanding to five on both sides of its intersection with the San Diego Freeway.
In August, the eastbound freeway from Topanga Canyon Boulevard to the San Diego Freeway also should be five lanes.
Caltrans resident engineer Jim McAllister predicts that opening the new eastbound lanes "will move the morning slowdown from Winnetka Avenue to somewhere around Balboa" Boulevard.
But it won't eliminate the 6-to-10 a.m. slowdown, he said, because the congested southbound San Diego Freeway will continue to back up eastbound Ventura Freeway traffic.
In the project's final 10 months, crews will concentrate on widening the freeway to five lanes each way from the San Diego Freeway to the Hollywood Freeway and one mile south on the Hollywood Freeway to Lankershim Boulevard.
As a result, motorists will soon encounter bumps and temporary lane shifts along that eight-mile stretch much like those that vexed motorists on the West Valley segment over the past year, McAllister said.
He said the project, scheduled to last 22 months, has been delayed about three months by unusually cold weather in December and heavy rain in March, both of which brought paving to a halt.
Tutor-Saliba Corp. of Sylmar, the general contractor, is being paid $36.9 million for the project, with several million more dollars allocated to landscape and roadway maintenance by Caltrans crews.
McAllister predicted that the final cost "should be right around $40 million, which is just about what we expected."
Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn., said his group has forwarded to Caltrans "quite a few complaints about noise and vibrations" from heavy equipment working nights on the roadway.
To keep traffic flowing, Caltrans is requiring crews to do almost all work visible to passing motorists between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. weekdays and 9 p.m. and noon weekends. But Close said McAllister "deserves pretty good marks for responsiveness in solving the problem or at least explaining why it can't be solved."
Close said most members of his association "seem to have decided to tolerate this noise and bumpiness because we sure need the new lanes."
He added: "Mostly I hear people asking, 'When is it going to be widened so we can get to work?' "