Harrowing Drive on State's Oldest Freeway

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's been called a lot of things in its long life: Miracle Boulevard, Highway of the Future, Arroyo Seco Parkway, World's Longest Parking Lot and California 110.

The Pasadena Freeway is the state's oldest. And it's the third oldest superhighway in the nation--a sunken, six-lane parkway that thrilled the public when it opened Dec. 30, 1940, and helped supercharge Southern California's love of the auto. Later, it became a National Civil Engineering Landmark.

The gracefully meandering roadway still accommodates those looking for a leafy, pleasant spin through the hills between downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena--as long as they are patient enough for many curves and design quirks.

But for those who don't treat the old lady with respect, there can be spills and long delays. The Pasadena Freeway is still a better place for the Sunday driver than the tardy commuter.

The freeway's configuration keeps traffic volumes low compared with the interstates. Just three lanes accommodate cars in each direction. And the freeway's northern terminus provides no direct connection to any other freeway. Instead, cars come to a stoplight and must proceed along the city of Pasadena's congested surface streets.

About 85,000 cars use the freeway daily, less than one-fourth the load on some of its more modern cousins, said Judy Gish, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Transportation. But the freeway's many outdated engineering features can sometimes throw those few vehicles into dangerously close proximity.

The Pasadena Freeway has no shoulder and only a few turnouts on its meandering route along the Arroyo Seco River. The lanes are a foot narrower than the current standard, 12 feet. And getting on and off the freeway can be a thriller.

Abbreviated ramps more closely resemble surface street turn lanes, requiring cars to make the transition in just a few feet between the 55 mph speed limit and ramp speeds of as low as 5 mph.

Even in its earliest days, a motorist described the challenge of merging onto the curving roadway: waiting at a dead stop for an opening in traffic, and then, with teeth clenched, pushing the accelerator all the way to the floor. "Go! . . . Go! . . . Go!" John Cornell of Westways magazine wrote, describing the sensation, "afraid to look back and see if anything was gaining on you."

At its southern end in downtown Los Angeles--where the route morphs from the Pasadena into the Harbor Freeway--Caltrans has just completed a $16-million project to provide more room to maneuver.

A fourth lane has been added for a 4,000-foot stretch on the southbound side, between the Los Angeles River and Chinatown. Engineers hope that the additional lane will reduce collisions along a stretch of road where the accident rate has been three times the state average for two years.

Now, motorists along that stretch have another lane in which to move to their left approaching downtown, as they are joined by a flood of cars from the southbound Golden State Freeway.

Since 1996, there have been 3,208 accidents and 11 fatalities on the Pasadena Freeway.

"That's about two fatalities per year, or one person dying every six months on that small stretch of freeway. That's not a good thing," said Officer Dennis Woodbury of the California Highway Patrol's Central Los Angeles Division.

Drivers used to cruising well over the 65 mph speed limit on other freeways are often not prepared for the curves and unpredictable banking on the Pasadena Freeway. When they don't at least try to approximate posted speed limits as low as 35 mph, they can get in trouble.

Recently, a driver in a Chevy Suburban tried to negotiate a curve too fast. He ricocheted off the center divider, flew about 25 feet over a fence and landed upside down in the concrete-lined Arroyo Seco River. Both fortunate occupants walked away, one with only a broken finger, according to CHP Sgt. Michael Teixeira, who has worked in the area since 1972.

The challenge of the old roadway becomes particularly significant when it rains.

"The rainy season is the worst," Woodbury said. "Cars slide all over the place and usually roll over, especially near the snake turn at Bridewell Street."

When the first substantial rain of the season fell last week, there were five accidents on the Pasadena Freeway in just one day.

Because of the lack of extra lanes and turnouts, emergency crews and police can have problems responding.

"It's a nightmare for us to work and sometimes impossible to get to the scene of an accident, which usually blocks the freeway completely," Teixeira said. Cars that plunge over the side into the concrete riverbed can be hard to spot. "There are not a lot of access points along the river either, and it's difficult to see down there," he said.

The first ambitions for a transportation thoroughfare down the Arroyo Seco actually involved the bicycle. The first phase of the Pasadena Cycleway--with backers such as Pasadena Mayor Horace Dobbins and Gov. Henry Markham--was completed in 1900.

But the world's first elevated bicycle expressway never grew beyond its initial 1 1/2 miles. The right of way was eventually sold, clearing a path for construction of the freeway, decades later.

The original Pasadena Freeway included a 4-foot-wide median, landscaped with shrubs to screen out the glare of opposing headlights. The two outside lanes were paved with white concrete, and the inside lane was black--a pattern that was supposed to discourage drivers from lane-hopping.

Soon, the first freeway evidenced two of the problems that would bedevil its modern-day counterparts: traffic jams and air pollution. As early as 1950, pictures show old sedans bumper to bumper along the route.

And in 1943, the just 3-year-old freeway got the blame for a murky pall of smoke and gases that descended on downtown L.A. The new menace was dubbed a "gas attack"--a phenomenon that only later would be called "smog."

Today, the Pasadena Freeway looks much the same as ever. The landscaped median is gone. And brown, cinder-block sound walls have risen here and there. But times have changed around the mother of all California freeways.

"The Pasadena Freeway has terrible design features, but it's a necessary evil," said Teixeira, the CHP veteran. "It's like working with an abacus, instead of a modern computer."

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