The storms were over and the sun was shining. But traffic in the San Fernando Valley was at a near standstill.
Even in a town long accustomed to massive traffic congestion, the closure last week of portions of five of the seven canyon roads between the San Fernando Valley and the rest of Los Angeles was remarkable.
"I've worked in Santa Monica for almost seven years and last Wednesday was the longest commute ever: two hours and five minutes to go 11 miles," said Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association whose typical 35-minute trip turned into a nightmare. "I tried every possible street: Montana, San Vicente, Wilshire. No street worked."
Though most of the roads were back up and running by the end of the week, the fallout from the rains again exposed a weakness in the city's network of roadways, causing some of the worst gridlock in more than a decade.
"It's just like the fingers on your hand it's so obvious that sometimes you forget they're there," said Bruce Ackerman, President and chief executive of the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley. "Once you lose some of those surface street connections, you lose everything."
The narrow and twisty canyon roads traversing the Santa Monica Mountains have never been an ideal alternative to the freeways, especially with the susceptibility to flooding and mudslides. But as both the Ventura (101) and San Diego (405) freeways have become increasingly clogged over the years, they serve as pressure valves for rush-hour traffic.
In 2004, the number of automobile trips on Laurel Canyon averaged 38,000 each day, according to counts taken by city's Department of Transportation, compared with 33,000 in 1995.
"The canyon roads were never built or designed to be used as those types of roadways," said Councilwoman Wendy Greuel. "But they have become access roads for people trying to get over the hill."
The road closures began on Monday as several days of pounding rain began taking their toll. A large boulder blocked Topanga Canyon.
Mudslides knocked out Coldwater Canyon and Laurel Canyon. Flooding slowed Beverly Glen Boulevard, and Benedict Canyon had been closed to through traffic for nearly a year as new storm drains are installed.
Lacking alternatives, commuters were left to try the freeways if they could even get on. Cars were backed up just to get to the on-ramps, and once motorists finally made it onto the freeways, speeds were running barely 20 miles per hour in many places when traffic was moving at all.
Close said one of his colleagues left the office at 6 p.m., "went nowhere, turned around and came back to the office. He ate dinner and set out again at 8:30 p.m., figuring it would take 30 minutes to get over the hill. It took him 90 minutes."
"This is an issue that affects everyone who commutes. It's also a political issue," Close said. "We're hosting a mayoral debate this coming week and I can assure you this will be topic No. 1. People are really fuming about this."
Barbara Pressman, a senior account manager at public relations firm Christine Anderson & Associates Inc., typically has a 45-minute commute between Sherman Oaks and her Miracle Mile office. During the storm, that drive time swelled to nearly two hours.
"It seems no matter what you do you can't figure it out," she said. "I've tried it every which way, and even in good weather, there's always traffic. There really is no way around it."
L.A. County officials peg repairs to their streets and property from the rain at $50 million. The city of Los Angeles estimates repairs to public and private property at $10 million, and Caltrans is spending $11 million on immediate repairs, though that figure will rise as more roadway fixes are needed.
Greuel said the storms were an extraordinary event and the street closures don't necessarily point to a lack of public investment. "We had the largest amount of rainfall in Los Angeles history," she said. "Damage to public streets can be expected when you get that magnitude of rain. Hopefully it's something that won't ever happen again."
Yet more disruptions are likely in the future, transportation officials warn. As state and federal governments have diverted funds away from fixing and improving roads and freeways, minor problems are likely to have greater impacts.
"Transportation infrastructure is important and deserves more attention than it gets," said James Moore, director of USC's transportation engineering program. "If we continue to defer maintenance and construction, they won't work the way we want and the cost of even a minor event will be dramatic."
Three years ago, voters statewide approved Proposition 42, which taxes gasoline to pay for congestion relief projects. But every year since then, those funds have been diverted to help plug the state's enormous budget deficits. In his 2005-06 budget proposal released last week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has again proposed diverting Prop. 42 dollars to help close an $8 billion budget gap.
Many of the Los Angeles projects proposed by Caltrans, such as expanding the Hollywood (101) Freeway, have been met with fierce public opposition. Meanwhile, major improvements to the Hollywood/Ventura Freeway corridor have been tabled while smaller fixes, such as tweaking the on-and-off ramps, are completed.
The California Department of Transportation was expected to break ground last Friday on an extension of the carpool lanes on the San Diego (405) Freeway, between the Marina (90) Freeway and the Santa Monica (10) Freeway. While not adding a new lane, Caltrans officials said the new carpool lane is expected to ease traffic flow.
As for roads, Greuel said a right-turn lane and a left-turn traffic signal have been added at the intersection of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Mulholland Drive to ease the flow of traffic on the busy corridor, which connects Hollywood and Studio City.
But she noted that the improvements are double-edged. If traffic moves better, more commuters will use the road and overwhelm the neighborhood. Indeed, people who live in the canyons have steadfastly opposed widening for that reason.
Instead of adding lanes to freeways or trying to increase the amount of traffic the canyon roads can handle, Greuel said the city and the state must focus on expanding mass transit and carpooling. "We don't want to exacerbate the issues of people going over the canyons," Greuel said. "We must look at regional solutions to our traffic problems."
But Christopher Thornberg, a senior economist at the UCLA Anderson Forecast, said L.A.'s traffic problems are exaggerated and that public transportation isn't necessarily the answer.
Thornberg cited U.S. Census data that indicates the mean commute time in Los Angeles County is 28.7 minutes, while in the five boroughs that make up New York it's 37.3 minutes.
"I don't think of public transport as something that will decrease our commuting time because it won't," he said. "Public transportation is slow. Look at New York, they use public transport way more than we do but it takes them at least 10 minutes more to get to work."
Moore agrees. He said the trick to easing traffic on freeways and surface streets is for Caltrans and local transportation departments to work on adding multiple routes. One key improvement, Moore said, would be to connect longstanding gaps in the freeway system.
Thornberg said that as long as L.A.'s freeways and roads are safe and maintained, traffic congestion can be a healthy sign.
"Traffic is a symptom of a growing economy, not an impediment to it," he said. "Why is downtown becoming a hot place to live? Because people are getting sick of commuting."
Staff reporters Howard Fine and Rachel Brown contributed to this story.
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