Bill to Restore El Monte Busway Moves Forward

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Legislation to end an unsuccessful carpool lane experiment and restore the status quo to the El Monte Busway cleared its first legislative hurdle Tuesday, but not without some nail biting.

Dubbing his own carpool lane experiment a failure, Assemblyman Bob Margett (R-Arcadia) pleaded with the Senate Transportation Committee to undo legislation he helped carry last year that has turned the once reliable busway into a parking lot.

"We should admit we made a mistake," Margett said.

But Margett's bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Hilda Solis (D-La Puente), failed to get the required number of votes on the first three Transportation Committee roll calls.

Although it finally passed 8 to 1, enough legislators refused to vote on it to raise questions about the likelihood that it ultimately will get the two-thirds legislative majorities that it would need to end the carpool lane experiment immediately. If it eventually passes as a simple majority-vote bill, it will not take effect until next Jan. 1, meaning that commuters will have to endure six more months of traffic delays and chronically late buses in the San Gabriel Valley.

The lone no vote was cast by Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City), one of a growing number of lawmakers said to be growing disillusioned with California's carpool lanes, also known as high occupancy vehicle lanes.

"There is no evidence whatsoever that HOV lanes actually work," Murray said after the vote. Murray and Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Northridge), another vocal critic of dedicated freeway lanes, believe that carpool lanes may actually be contributing to congestion and both want an exhaustive study to determine whether the lanes actually provide incentives for people to carpool.

Margett's legislation would rescind an experiment that has disrupted bus traffic on the heavily used El Monte Busway, which runs for 11 miles on the San Bernardino Freeway from Baldwin Avenue in El Monte to Mission Avenue near downtown Los Angeles.

As a highly successful program, the busway since 1973 had transported large numbers of commuters from the San Gabriel Valley to downtown.

A study by Caltrans in 1997 found that 49% of the people using the San Bernardino Freeway during peak hours traveled on the busway, while the other four traffic lanes combined carried the other 51%. What's more, bus passengers accounted for about 48% of the people using the carpool lane, a huge figure for Los Angeles County, where most commuters shun buses and still travel back and forth to work alone in their cars.

The large number of bus passengers was believed to have been attracted by the so-called "speed incentive"--the ability of buses to breeze along the busway at speeds of up to 55 mph in contrast with traffic creeping along in the other lanes.

The speed differential was created because the carpool lane on the busway, until the beginning of this year, was restricted to vehicles with three or more occupants, in contrast with the two-person minimum on other Southern California freeways.

The problem was that local legislators began hearing from motorists in the traffic-jammed mixed-flow lanes, who saw the high speeds and wide gaps in the busway and wanted in.

The complaints found a receptive audience in the Legislature, where Murray and others are questioning the billions spent developing California's 925 miles of carpool lanes, most of them in Southern California.

So last year, Solis and Margett presented a bill that breezed through the Legislature and, effective Jan. 1, reduced the required minimum number of occupants in vehicles on the El Monte Busway lane from three to two.

It was to be an 18-month experiment. It has lasted five.

The busway got so jammed with traffic that once-reliable buses now are on time only about half the time. Former bus commuters are getting back in their cars. So many cars are crowding into the busway that a safety problem is created at entry points.

More than anything, it has reduced the speed of buses to a crawl, matching that of the rest of the freeway traffic.

Andre Colaice, who works for Foothill Transit, told lawmakers at Tuesday's hearing that the reduction in speed took away "the carrot that acted as an incentive" for people to get out of their cars and into buses. Foothill Transit, along with Caltrans and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, opposed the original bill, predicting the chaos that eventually developed.

The Margett bill would restore to three the minimum number of occupants in vehicles that use the busway during morning and afternoon rush hours. At all other times, two people would qualify as a carpool.

Sen. Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach), chairwoman of the Transportation Committee, said that telling motorists the times for three-and-two vehicle carpools would "be confusing" but that drivers would figure it out.

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