Study ranks California roads among the nation’s worst, so experts offer fixes for clogged roads.

By Sue Doyle and Harrison Sheppard

California’s drivers are stuck in some of the nation’s worst traffic with state highways that are so clogged, poorly paved and costly to maintain that they rank seventh worst in the nation, according to a report set to be released today.

Perhaps coming as little surprise to motorists, the annual highway performance report by the Reason Foundation has consistently found California’s roads among the most miserable in the country.

“There’s lots of traffic, relatively high costs of doing business and increasing truck traffic. And not much room for freeway expansion,” said study author David Hartgen, a retired professor of transportation studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

And that increasingly desperate need for roomier roadways – in already densely populated areas – is putting growing pressure on communities.

Caltrans wants to widen freeways to the maximum extent possible.

That means six lanes in each direction – like the San Diego (405) Freeway expansion through the Sepulveda Pass under consideration now, said Doug Failing, Caltrans director.

Plans for that project include adding a northbound carpool lane and changing the width of lanes heading south to make room for one more.

But the plans include wiping out up to 37 homes and businesses to make the extra room. And the use of eminent domain in doing so has some concerned.

Opponents say they’re being forced out of their longtime neighborhoods and that adding a lane will only shave a few minutes off commute times.

“If you’re going to do this expansion that will save drivers eight minutes, do you really need to do this?” said the Rev. Janet Bregar of Brentwood Glen’s Village Church, which is slated to be razed for the expansion.

It’s unclear whether the region will see the use of more eminent domain to make room for road expansion, but Failing said it’s always a possibility.

“We’re trying to find ways to use less eminent domain because it is a last resort,” Failing said. “The last thing you want to do is take someone out of their house.”

California has lagged on building roads for years because there was always the hope that people would switch to public transportation.

But that dream has never taken off, said Peter Gordon, professor at the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development.

“It was kind of a dumb idea, and it didn’t work,” Gordon said. “So here we are.”

Although taking 37 homes and businesses seems extreme, it’s far less than what has been done in previous situations.

Thousands of homes and businesses were razed when freeways were first built in the region, said Martin Wachs, director of the Transportation, Space and Technology program at the Rand Corp.

But ensuing community opposition has slowed freeway expansion as politicians and transportation officials are more reluctant to disrupt communities with eminent domain, Wachs said.

Still, he said the trade-off is that the area will see traffic congestion become progressively worse.

“We have to choose between one or the other and increasingly we’re more willing to accept community as the priority,” Wachs said.

“As a consequence, transportation systems get more congested.”

To get Los Angeles moving in the right direction, tolls should be charged for driving on freeways, with prices varying by time of day, said Gordon.

Gordon said such a concept would be a better use of roads and would bring in money to build more.

“We understand early bird specials and pricing that works with demand,” Gordon said.

“But that’s not the way we run our roads, and that’s exactly the problem we’re whining about.

“We created our own mess.”

Even with the use of eminent domain, most transportation experts agree that simply building more lanes will not answer the region’s traffic woes.

In the future, ramp meters on freeways and traffic signals that work together to move blocks of cars will be relied on more to keep people moving.

Failing said the region needs a mass transit system that more people use. And the area needs clusters of housing and jobs around transit stations.

“There’s a whole series of things we need to do,” Failing said. “Just building isn’t going to do it.”

The Daily Breeze: