Fast Lane in the Sky Set to Open


Skittish about driving on a road that extends 50 feet above a busy freeway?

Don’t be, Caltrans engineers assure. The massive Harbor Freeway Transitway is safe, they say.

And you will finally get a chance to decide for yourself. The massive project--the first bus and carpool lanes built over an existing freeway in Los Angeles--is scheduled to open next week, capping seven years of construction on one of the nation’s busiest roads.

The elevated roadway is unlike anything else in Los Angeles. But the double-deck look could become the fashion of the future for older freeways, such as the Hollywood and Santa Ana, where a shortage of land and political opposition make widening difficult.


The $550-million project, opening two years later than promised, adds bus and carpool lanes on the Harbor Freeway from the 91 Freeway to the Coliseum. A stretch of a carpool lane already is open, but this will be the first time that commuters will be able to ride on the elevated segment.

Caltrans still has about a year of work left on the project, including completing onramps and offramps at Adams Boulevard, where the carpool lanes will end. (Until the ramps are finished, carpoolers will have to get on and off the transitway at 39th Street or merge into regular freeway traffic lanes north of the Coliseum.)

While the roadway hasn’t yet opened to drivers, it has been open for another kind of business. “This is amazing,” remarked a Caltrans engineer upon spotting graffiti on the new structure. “We finished the walls, and the next day, we had graffiti.”


The transitway stops short of downtown because there was no money to extend it any farther. However, planners are studying how to extend it--possibly to Union Station--and how to pay for it.

The transitway--two bus and carpool lanes in each direction through the most congested sections of the Harbor Freeway--runs at freeway level before transforming into an elevated roadway through South-Central Los Angeles. The structure also was designed to accommodate a possible rail line in the future.

The transitway will include park-and-ride lots and transit stations where commuters can form carpools or catch buses for an estimated 20 minutes savings in their trip.

Commuters will catch buses at transit stations in the middle of the freeway that are scheduled to open early next year. A transit station at the interchange of the Century and Harbor freeways--where people can arrive by bus, car or the Green Line trolley--is already complete.


Caltrans officials say the transitway also will speed traffic for solo drivers but cannot say by how much. But consider: Of 240,000 vehicles using the freeway every day, about 7,700 are expected to drive in the carpool lanes.

“When you take cars out of the mixed-flow lanes, it should loosen up congestion,” said Caltrans spokesman Rick Holland.

The transitway is different from the usual carpool lanes. For the first time in Los Angeles County, Caltrans elevated sections of a carpool lane to avoid taking neighboring land from surrounding businesses and homes and also to keep from using existing lanes.

On the elevated segment, drivers are not likely to notice that they are hovering above busy traffic. Views of the traffic below are blocked by concrete walls.


Caltrans officials say the structure is designed to withstand a major earthquake.


Lessons learned in the collapse of the double-decked Nimitz Freeway in Oakland during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake were applied, engineers say.

“It went through Northridge without any damage whatsoever,” said Carl Bauer, executive vice president of contractor C.C. Myers, referring to the 1994 earthquake.


The 8-foot-diameter Y-shaped pillars supporting the transitway are constructed on top of steel shafts that are sunk as deep as 90 feet.

The project was billed as revolutionary from the start because Caltrans built the structure over the freeway with minimal disruption to traffic. One engineer compared it to “performing major surgery on a patient while the patient is awake and going to work.”


Commuters may remember the big, blue-steel molds, called trusses, used by workers to build the elevated segment.


“It was an engineering marvel,” said Frank Quon, Caltrans district division chief for operations.

Some people have suggested that the elevated roadway become a toll road--open to anyone, including solo drivers willing to pay for the privilege of speeding past slow-moving traffic on the lower level.

But critics have said that would unfairly exile low-income drivers to traffic gridlock, and Caltrans officials want to steer clear of the controversy.

Once construction is completed early next year, commuters on the Harbor Freeway should see one more thing to their liking: The speed limit is expected to be raised to 65 mph.



Elevated Freeway Lanes

The renovated Harbor Freeway, featuring the first bus and car- pool lanes built over an existing freeway in Los Angeles, opens next week, capping seven years of construction on one of the nation’s busiest roads.



Street Access

Northbound traffic can exit at 39th Street to Figueroa Street, or continue on freeway.