Easing of Carpool Rules Backfires as Lanes Jam

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The special lanes along the San Bernardino Freeway designed to speed express buses in and out of Los Angeles have been clogged to a standstill by carpoolers taking advantage of new state legislation, transportation officials say.

"It's a complete breakdown," an exasperated California Department of Transportation official said Friday, struggling to deal with the emerging problems on the San Bernardino Freeway carpool lanes--one in each direction--between the Civic Center and El Monte. "Traffic is completely stopped for miles."

The law, which took effect as a demonstration project Jan. 1, opened the carpool lanes to any vehicle with two or more occupants. Previously, the lanes--originally designed for exclusive use by buses--were open only to buses and to vehicles with three or more occupants.

According to Caltrans officials, traffic in the carpool lanes has slowed to a crawl as thousands of additional vehicles have taken advantage of the change. They say the trip between El Monte and downtown Los Angeles, which used to take about 15 minutes, now often takes twice that long.

The officials say traffic actually is moving more freely on the adjacent freeway than it is in the busway/carpool lanes, which used to be the most successful carpool route in the state.

The problem stems from a clash of competing values between Southern California's traditional car culture and growing numbers of people in the region who choose to commute by bus or rail, attracted by such conveniences as special freeway lanes.

State Sen. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte), who carried the bill opening up the busway, said pressure to modify the occupancy requirements came from residents and San Gabriel Valley civic leaders, who complained that they were stuck in traffic while the carpool lane was wide open.

The lane, Solis said, "was underutilized."

"It is too soon to come out and criticize," she said Friday. "We are not hearing from all the people who are using [the carpool lane]. Everywhere I go people are excited that it has been freed up."

But whether it has been freed up is a matter of interpretation.

Hundreds of buses that once breezed into downtown Los Angeles at 55 mph are often now stopped in traffic, transit officials say. The busway is being jammed with cars that now qualify because of the less restrictive requirements. Meanwhile, traffic has eased in the other lanes, a complete reversal.

"We're seeing miles of cars in the [carpool] lane stopped, while the rest of the freeway is in free flow," said Dawn Helou, Caltrans engineer in charge of so-called high-occupancy vehicle operations in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. "We've only been in this demonstration project 21 days, and we already have a complete breakdown for a couple of hours in the morning and a couple of hours in the evening, which defeats the whole purpose of the [carpool] lane."

Before the law was changed, the busway was moving 7,000 people an hour into downtown Los Angeles during peak commuting hours, according to Caltrans traffic studies. The freeway's four other traffic lanes combined were moving 7,600 an hour during peak hours.

But during the week ending Jan. 14, Caltrans said the carpool lane was moving only 5,000 people an hour at peak periods.

Although the new law took effect Jan. 1, signs notifying motorists of the change on the heavily congested freeway--now the county's busiest--did not go up until Jan. 10. Complaints have been growing by the day, say transit officials and bus riders.

"I've been late to work every day since it's been changed," said travel agent Alethea Smith, who works at 5th and Flower streets in downtown Los Angeles. One immediate problem: She must pick her two children up from day care at 6 p.m., paying $1 for each minute she is late, and she is often five to 10 minutes late. Smith said she and other bus riders have begun circulating a petition to restore the previous occupancy limit.

"We've been getting a lot of complaints," said Helou of Caltrans. "I've had calls from bus riders saying it's taking them 20 to 30 minutes longer each way. We've also had calls from train riders as well, saying they aren't making their train connections."

Foothill Transit, which operates the largest number of buses on the busway, also reports receiving a heavy volume of calls. Complaints are also piling up at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Both agencies opposed Solis' bill.

"We were hoping to keep the three-person minimum restriction for the [carpool] lane at least during peak periods. The El Monte busway is one of the most successful busways in the U.S.," said Ray Maekawa, director of highway programs for the MTA.

Foothill Transit runs 454 buses down the busway each business day, accounting for 18,000 commuters going in and out of Los Angeles. The MTA, which runs four bus lines, handles nearly 7,000 passengers each day on the busway.

With congestion growing intolerable on many freeways, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Sacramento are feeling heat from constituents who sit in traffic and stare covetously at the often-open carpool lanes.

Critics in the Legislature were given new ammunition earlier this month, when the state legislative analyst's office released a study finding that carpool lanes were moving substantially more people than traffic-clogged mixed flow lanes, but in terms of vehicles were only operating at two-thirds of their capacity. The upshot of that study was a decision that more research was needed.

Solis' bill passed without a dissenting vote in the Senate and was backed by Monterey Park, South El Monte, El Monte, La Puente and other San Gabriel Valley cities and business groups. The law said the demonstration project would remain in effect until July 1, 2001.

A strong argument in favor of the bill, Solis said, was that most other carpool lanes in the state have the two-person-per-vehicle requirement.

The three-person rule for the San Bernardino Freeway route stemmed from the original intent of the lane, which was to be exclusively for buses. An MTA strike and the energy crisis of the 1970s generated pressure to open the busway to vehicles occupied by at least three people, and it remained so until passage of Solis' bill.

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Lane Change

A new law that opened a high-occupancy-vehicle lane on the San Bernardino Freeway to cars with as few as two passengers has caused the lane to be packed, which some critics say defeats the purpose for which it was created.

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