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Ocean of Cars Clogs PCH in the South Bay

Times Staff Writer

Famous for its ocean views, Pacific Coast Highway is gaining a reputation in the South Bay these days for something far less glamorous: traffic.

Commuting in the region -- where California Highway 1 doubles as a major thoroughfare through several seaside towns -- has worsened in recent years largely because of residential and commercial development.

The highway, which provides a direct route to Los Angeles International Airport, also has become a popular alternative to the heavily traveled 405 Freeway.

City and county officials are taking steps to better manage traffic flow and improve safety along the busy roadway. A new traffic signal was added in April at PCH and 16th Street in Hermosa Beach, where a 15-year-old boy was killed March 16 as he tried to cross the multi-lane highway on his scooter.

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“Traffic engineers are trying to adapt a system that wasn’t designed for what it’s having to handle now,” said Sgt. Paul A. Wolcott, a spokesman for the Hermosa Beach Police Department. “Nobody could have imagined the amount of traffic we have now. They have an extremely difficult job.”

About 65,000 vehicles travel daily on PCH in Hermosa Beach, and residents and merchants around 16th Street said traffic has only worsened since a new complex -- which includes a day spa and gym -- opened last July.

To improve safety, particularly for pedestrians, Hermosa Beach Police Sgt. Tom Thompson said the department plans to ask Caltrans -- which oversees any work done on PCH because it is a state highway -- to remove three other pedestrian crosswalks without traffic signals on the highway.

Other South Bay communities also are taking steps to better manage traffic flow on the roadway.

Manhattan Beach, where California 1 becomes Sepulveda Boulevard, is adding left-turn signals at its busiest intersections and Redondo Beach recently completed a $650,000 project that will allow southbound drivers to make a right turn onto Catalina Avenue from PCH without stopping.

And in a first for Los Angeles County, the Department of Public Works soon will launch a new program using radio transmitters to record and monitor traffic patterns in the South Bay. The transmitters will be attached to 51 traffic signals in the coverage zone, which includes Manhattan Beach, Hawthorne and several unincorporated areas.

Under the current system, magnetic road sensors detect when a vehicle passes through an intersection.

A special monitoring device, attached to the traffic signal post, then processes the data in order to synchronize the lights.

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For example, if no vehicle passes for a certain period of time, the light will turn red. If the traffic light is not functioning properly, a separate monitor will switch the light to flashing red or off.

Once the radio transmitters are installed -- scheduled for the end of summer -- data from the traffic monitors will be transferred directly to the department’s headquarters in Alhambra, alerting officials to any problems.

“We are able to monitor the signal without having to be there,” said Jane White, a transportation system manager for the department. “If it malfunctions, we immediately get notification. If something happens, if we detect a little bit of congestion, we can change the signal timing.”

Nowadays, the department relies on police departments, motorists and residents to inform it about traffic conditions.

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White said the department also plans to install six closed-circuit television cameras throughout the South Bay within the next 18 months.

The wireless radio system and closed-circuit cameras are part of what transportation officials call intelligent transportation systems, which allow them to remotely monitor and respond to problems on the road.

“You can’t make the roads wider; you need to make the system more efficient,” White said. “Let’s get the system operating to the best it can because you cannot continue to add lanes.”

But in Redondo Beach, as property along Pacific Coast Highway is redeveloped, the city also is obtaining land so eventually a lane can be added in each direction.

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The city’s stretch of the highway now has two lanes in each direction.

The road already handles about 45,000 cars daily -- an increase from two decades ago when John Mate, Redondo Beach’s transportation engineer, started working for the city.

The number of cars going through the city probably will increase in the future, Mate said, and that is what he is preparing for. “We’re talking 20 years or more from now,” he said.


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