Rush Hour Traffic Plan For Sepulveda Gains as Volume Continues Rise

Staff Reporter

In his mayoral campaign two years ago, businessman Steve Soboroff said the first thing he would do once elected would be to put reversible traffic lanes on Sepulveda Boulevard through the Santa Monica Mountains to reduce rush hour gridlock.

Soboroff wound up losing, but L.A. traffic planners are following up on his idea.

Their $11.3 million plan calls for a 3.5 mile-long reversible lane down the center of Sepulveda Boulevard, from Getty Center Drive to the Mulholland Tunnel at the top of the pass. The lane would operate only during rush hour in the direction with the most traffic southbound during the morning and northbound in the evening. Overhead signals would be spaced several hundred feet apart to tell drivers when it's allowable to use the extra lane.

The project also includes widening the roadway, putting in a bicycle lane on the northbound side and widening Sepulveda as it nears Wilshire Boulevard. If it gains City Council approval late this year or early next, the reversible lane could open in late 2006.

"This project will make the traffic flow better on Sepulveda and peak periods of congestion will be shorter as a result," said Sean Haeri, transportation engineer with the L.A. Department of Transportation.

But it faces opposition on two fronts. Bicycle advocacy groups say the plan will take away shoulder space on the southbound side and thus make the road less safe. And homeowners say the reversible lane will only serve to draw traffic off the San Diego (405) Freeway and add to the congestion that already exists around the Skirball Cultural Center.

"This plan will actually induce traffic, cause even more congestion and make it virtually impossible for residents in the area to get in and out of their homes," said Brentwood resident Patricia Bell Hearst.

Last week, after an emotional public hearing featuring testimony from cyclists who had been injured on Sepulveda, the Los Angeles Bicycle Advisory Committee voted unanimously to oppose the project.

"The Department of Transportation is putting bicyclists in grave danger by not including a bicycle lane on the southbound side of Sepulveda," said Aaron Kirsch, a member of the L.A. County Bicycle Coalition who testified at the hearing.

Funding Troubles

L.A. transit officials say they would like to add that southbound bike lane, but lack the funds to do so. "We're exploring every feasible way to squeeze out enough money to widen the street to accommodate the extra bike lane," Haeri said.

Transit officials also want to widen the Mulholland Tunnel to five lanes from the current three, but that would cost an extra $17 million money the city doesn't have.

Indeed, funding issues have plagued the concept of reversible lanes on Sepulveda ever since the idea first surfaced 20 years ago. At that time, it seemed like a natural: Sepulveda is the only north-south alternative to the frequently gridlocked San Diego Freeway for miles on either side. Also, rush hour traffic on Sepulveda is overwhelmingly directional: up to nine times more cars travel in one direction at rush hour compared to the opposite direction.

When the reversible lane concept was first tried on Sepulveda, from 1991 to 1993, it was a carpool lane barely one mile long. Making matters worse, there wasn't enough money to install automated signals, so transit officials had to resort to laying down hundreds of orange traffic cones.

After an initial two-week surge, the average number of cars using the lane fell to fewer than 150 per hour. Haeri said drivers consistently knocked over the cones, causing them to roll into traffic lanes and further snarl traffic.

Since then, congestion has only grown worse along Sepulveda, and not only because more cars are trying to get over the hill. There are now eight private schools along Mulholland Drive within a quarter-mile of Sepulveda that generate weekday drop offs and pick ups. Also, in the mid-1990s, the Skirball Cultural Center and the Getty Center opened along Sepulveda.

Ideally, the reversible lane would traverse the entire Sepulveda Pass, from Wilshire Boulevard on the south to Ventura Boulevard at the north. It would not be a carpool lane, but used as a regular traffic lane during rush hour. In addition, the road would be widened, especially through the Mulholland tunnel. And to fulfill a commitment the city made to bicycle advocates, there would be a bike lane on each side. Total cost: around $40 million.

But when this new plan was presented to the L.A. Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the spigots of state and federal funding were being shut off. Only $11 million in signal synchronization funds were made available.

What's more, to widen Sepulveda south of Getty Center Drive, the city needed to obtain additional rights-of-way from the California Department of Transportation. But Caltrans has plans of its own a possible widening of the freeway for a northbound carpool lane. So, the three miles between Getty Center Drive and Wilshire were dropped from the plan.

Tucson failure

Meanwhile, the city was gaining experience with the concept in East Los Angeles, where a mile-long reversible lane on Fourth Street over the Los Angeles River opened in 1996. It was the first permanent reversible lane in L.A. to use overhead traffic signals instead of traffic cones.

Such lanes have been frequently used elsewhere, including Cincinnati, Boston and Tucson, Ariz. The results have been mixed: In Eastern cities, where reversible lanes were installed decades ago, they have become an accepted way of life. But in Tucson, where several reversible lanes were installed about a decade ago, businesses suffered because left turns became more difficult to make. Also, not everyone heeded the signals; a rash of deadly accidents ensued, earning the lanes the moniker "suicide lanes."

"It was absolutely crazy out there," said Ramon Gaanderse, a lobbyist with the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. "Sometimes people would forget the hours the lanes would operate and smash head-on into people using the lanes to make left turns. It could be very scary."

Gaanderse added that he had not seen a noticeable drop in congestion with the introduction of the lanes. Tucson officials have dropped all the reversible lanes save one, and that one may well be eliminated in the next few months.

L.A. transit officials said they are confident about safety, pointing to the Fourth Street experiment. "In the two weeks after that reversible lane opened, we had two fender benders. In the six years since then, not one major accident," said James Okazaki, assistant general manager for the L.A. Department of Transportation.

Residents like Hearst are more worried about congestion bottlenecks intensifying at each end of the reversible lane.

"Even now, it can take 20 minutes to go the six-tenths of a mile between Mountaingate Drive and Skirball Center Drive," Hearst said. "What do you think is going to happen when you put even more cars there?"

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