Caltrans seeks ways to unclog its overflowing carpool lanes

Times Staff Writers

California’s growing network of carpool lanes is so congested that many of the lanes have fallen out of compliance with federal regulations, prompting officials Friday to begin considering radical measures to reduce congestion.

A Caltrans study found that during the evening rush hour nearly one-third of carpool-lane miles do not meet federal minimum standards, which require that the lanes flow at speeds of 45 mph or faster at rush hour.

The speeds are far lower on some major Southern California routes, including portions of the 405 Freeway from the South Bay through Orange County as well as the 5 and 210 freeways. Local officials say the 91 Freeway carpool lanes connecting Orange County and the Inland Empire can slow to 10 mph during rush hour, with portions of the 55 and 57 freeways doing even worse.

The findings come amid a growing concern among transportation officials and motorists that the state’s 1,350 miles of carpool lanes are losing their effectiveness as a tool to encourage ride-sharing.


Over the last three decades, adding carpool lanes to ease congestion has been the dominant reason for widening freeways. Much of the $4.5 billion earmarked this year from a voter-approved state infrastructure bond measure will go to fund additional carpool lanes on freeways, including the 405, 57, 215 and 5. Ultimately, the state wants to build an additional 950 miles of carpool lanes.

“The bottom line is that it’s filling up everywhere,” said Hasan Ikhrata, director of planning and policy at the Southern California Assn. of Governments. “They are becoming as congested as the other lanes.”

You don’t have to tell that to commuters, who have been increasingly grumbling. Even bus operators have been fuming. Foothill Transit officials complained recently that a bus trip on the 10 Freeway carpool lanes between Montclair and downtown Los Angeles that took 94 minutes a decade ago now lasts two hours.

Caltrans is expected to develop a plan for the Federal Highway Administration in the next few weeks, and there is already much debate about what to do. If Caltrans can’t improve carpool lane flow, it could risk losing federal funds.

Among the ideas under consideration:

* Limiting the state’s program that allows lone motorists in gasoline-electric hybrid cars to use the carpool lanes.

* Making it easier to enter and leave carpool lanes.

* Increasing the minimum number of people for a carpool to three from two on some freeways.

* Beefing up enforcement efforts against carpool lane cheating.

Right now, motorists on most freeways are allowed to enter the carpool lanes only at certain stretches of the freeways. Most of the time, the lanes are separated from regular traffic by double yellow lines indicating that motorists may not cross at will.

Through the years, Caltrans and other agencies have defended that system, saying it was intended to keep carpool lanes moving swiftly for long-distance motorists. Short-distance commuters would thus be discouraged, preventing them from merging into and out of the lanes and interrupting the flow of traffic.

But some Caltrans officials are saying that as the system becomes more congested, the restricted merging points may actually cause bottlenecks, not prevent them.

“People from mixed-flow lanes, when they come into the carpool lane, they come in at a slow speed. When they exit, they need to slow down to blend into mixed-flow traffic,” said Syed Raza, who oversees traffic operations for Caltrans in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. “That ripple effect slows down everyone else in the carpool lane.”

Many Northern California carpool lanes already allow motorists to enter or exit at any time. According to the Caltrans study -- which examined carpool lanes with computer sensors that monitor vehicle flow -- some Northern California freeways are also out of compliance with federal regulations. Some of the worst congestion was found on the 101 Freeway in Santa Clara County as well as the 80 and 880 freeways in the east San Francisco Bay Area.

The Orange County Transportation Authority is seeking to go to a similar enter-exit system on many of its carpool lanes and has already implemented it on new 22 Freeway carpool lanes.

“There’s nothing as frustrating as being stuck in traffic and having to wait” to get into carpool lanes, said Carolyn Cavecche, chairwoman of the transportation authority.

Carpool lane user Elinor Hood, 67, of Ventura said the changes might improve traffic flow. But she also worries that they could increase accidents with more people weaving in and out -- “especially when the carpool lane is moving fast and the people to the right aren’t.”

Prohibiting hybrid drivers from using the most congested carpool lanes is also hotly debated.

The state has issued 85,000 decals allowing lone motorists in hybrids to use the lanes, and there has been a clamor for officials to issue more as the fuel-efficient cars gain in popularity. Some carpoolers have complained that the addition of the hybrids has worsened traffic and slowed the carpool lanes. But a recent Caltrans study concluded that there was no clear indication that hybrids had significantly clogged the lanes.

Some transportation agencies and experts have suggested increasing the minimum number of people allowed to use carpool lanes to three occupants from two. Three per car is already the minimum during peak hours on the El Monte Busway on the San Bernardino Freeway and on most roadways leading to the toll plazas on Bay Area bridges. Two per car is the standard in most other parts of the state.

Raising the number would reduce carpool lane traffic -- something Foothill Transit and other bus agencies like.

But it would come at a price.

“If they switched to three-plus, it would create ‘empty lane syndrome’ for a while,” said Robert Copp, chief of the division of traffic operations for Caltrans in Sacramento.

Carpool lanes would be emptier, not working at a great capacity, and some current users would be forced into regular lanes, worsening traffic there.

But the idea also appeals to some traffic experts who have long sought ways to add toll lanes to Southern California freeways.

Robert Poole of the Reason Public Policy Institute suggests that the extra capacity in the carpool lanes could be used by charging lone motorists a toll to use them. Revenue from these tolls could then be used to build freeways.

Under the concept of “congestion pricing,” the cost of the toll would rise in such a way as to keep the lanes free flowing.

The Bush administration has made congestion pricing a priority of its transportation policy, earmarking $130 million this year in grants to agencies working on toll road-type projects. Los Angeles County has no congestion pricing program in the works -- and officials believe that’s why the region was passed over for federal traffic grants this year.

Toll lanes exist on freeways in Orange and San Diego counties, with the prices changing with the flow of traffic. Fees on the 91 Freeway’s toll lanes, for example, approach $10 during rush hour.

Toll lanes on freeways are usually built by private firms -- and efforts to convert existing carpool lanes to allow for tolls would have to clear legal hurdles.

But the carpool lanes have long been controversial. An attempt in the 1970s to convert an existing lane into a carpool lane on the Santa Monica Freeway prompted a revolt.

In response, Caltrans decided it would add carpool lanes only when widening freeways so it would not take away regular lanes.

Some officials do see some bright spots in the traffic woes.

“The good news is that people are using carpool lanes,” said Rose Melgoza, a spokeswoman for the Caltrans office in the Inland Empire.