People in Ventura County have always had the pleasure of distancing themselves from Los Angeles traffic, but those days may be over. The 101 freeway runs through Ventura County for 44 miles, from Thousand Oaks to Carpinteria. Locked between the sea and the mountains, there are virtually no alternate routes. That fact, combined with an increased population, has created gridlock that has never been seen here before.   Darren Kettle is the executive director of the Ventura County Transportation Commission. He’s been struggling to find a solution that people can live with. He said we may not like what he finds.

“The mainline freeway all the way from the L.A. County line through Camarillo and Oxnard to Ventura is our life-line route. We have been working the last few years on looking out to 2035 and our long-term transportation needs. While we are growing slowly, we still are growing; and this growth will impact our quality of life in Ventura County. As jobs come back around, we are going to see the 101 freeway experience more and more gridlock. Nobody wants to sit in that; it takes time away from our lives, our families, everything else,” he said.

Kettle said the peak commute time used to be bumper-to-bumper traffic for a half-an-hour to 45 minutes during the week. Now we’re sometimes up to one hour and a half. The weekend traffic is equally as bad and on holidays, too. “When it’s 102 degrees in the Valley and it’s 80 degrees in Ventura, we get the Los Angeles County traffic combined with ours.”

Approximately one third of the population of Ventura County commutes, that’s according to Transportation Commission statistics for 2011. Some go to Santa Barbara, but the vast majority commute to Los Angeles. Travel time varies but the overall average is 30 minutes. Less for local employees, more for commuters. About 60 percent of people leave for work between 6 and 8:30 am. The same mass returns between 4 and 6:30 p.m.

Since 2011, those times have started to get longer. Caltrans spokesperson Maria Raptis said the electronic message signs above the freeway will give constant updates.

A fiber optic loop embedded in the road sends data to Caltrans Transport Management Center in Glendale. There, the traffic engineers are watching big screens in a NASA-like complex, and disseminating the raw data from the roads. At 1 p.m. on Saturday, June 15, Father’s Day weekend, the Moorpark Road sign estimated the travel time from Thousand Oaks to Highway 33 as 55 minutes.

Photo courtesy California Department of Transportation District 7.
The Caltrans Transportation Management Center in Glendale, which monitors
freeway traffic throughout Los Angeles and Ventura Counties.

Also, the closer to L.A. County you get, the more cars you see. The data shows that the 2012 average daily traffic counts were highest at the 101 Freeway and Highway 23 interchange in Thousand Oaks with 189,000 cars per day. Camarillo had 140,000 cars on Highway 101 at Central Avenue. Oxnard, 134,000 cars at Johnson Drive. Carpinteria was lowest with 74,000 cars at Casitas Pass. According to Caltrans figures, those numbers rival traffic patterns in Los Angeles.

Kettle is collaborating with Caltrans to ease the traffic problem. He said there are two freeway projects underway right now.

The first is the widening from Mussel Shoals up to Carpinteria, with a lane being added in each direction. Caltrans is overseeing the operation that will turn those new lanes into carpool lanes. It will be finished by 2015 and will be the first HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes in Ventura County. The $102 million project will add 12 miles, six in each direction, of new carpool lanes on the Ventura Freeway — the first ever in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties.

Expanding the Highway 101, Highway 23 freeway interchange in Thousand Oaks is the only other project that will be moving into construction by the end of the year. The plan is to break ground before 2014. That project should be finished with construction in 2015.

“Identifying the challenge is one thing; putting the program in place to try to work through it is a whole other thing. We are working with Caltrans right now on something called a PDS project development study. We are asking what kind of improvement is needed to solve the problem over the next 20 years. In rough numbers, to add one lane in each direction on the 101 between the L.A. County line and Highway 33 to Ojai, would cost up to $800 million for that 30 miles.”

Funding is a problem. Federal funds for highways have diminished substantially, state funds have diminished substantially, and Ventura County is one of the only counties in Southern California without a sales tax measure for transportation improvements. Los Angeles County has a penny and a half sales tax for highways; Santa Barbara has a half-cent tax. So Ventura County has to rely completely on the federal government and Sacramento for funding.

“We see, at the most, $20 million a year for highway investment. So if we put every penny into widening the 101, it would take 40 years to fund it,” Kettle said. “So we have to look at alternatives, and one is adding lanes through a toll road. We would build new lanes that would be a use-based toll system. We’re seeing that more in Southern California. A study is underway to look at that type of solution. The thing that has changed so much with funding transportation in the country is the gas tax. It is a situation of diminishing return. We haven’t seen an increase in our gas taxes since the early ’90s. The tax is per gallon, not percentage of sale, so it’s a flat number.”

But there is some good news in all this. Ventura County Air Quality engineer Stan Callan reports that air pollution levels in Ventura County are getting much better.

“Year by year, you can see just the trends are improving. People are using less gasoline because it’s more costly, engines are so much more efficient now, and they keep getting more efficient, with more miles per gallon. In 1988, V.C. had 160 smog days, that’s days exceeding the national standard for safety. In 2013 we had 16 days. Los Angeles had 100 and Santa Barbara had two. Weather and geographic location are also factors,” Callan said.

Another alternative is light rail. According to Kettle, Ventura County has seen growth in Amtrak ridership in the last few years.

“The Pacific Surfliner had its highest ridership last year. The thing is that most of the track is owned by the Union Pacific Railroad. Much of the rail line up the coast is single track, you need a double track to be effective for commuting, and that would be extremely expensive to build. The railroad would need a guarantee of ridership to invest that much money. The fact of the matter is, in Southern California we still drive a lot and it would take a major culture shift to get people to just jump on the train.”


Road of good intentions

Kettle said he and other members of Ventura County government have been witnesses to a major increase in development along the 101 Freeway; development they are powerless to regulate.

“We have a number of both residential and commercial developments along the 101 corridor. There’s the Conejo Creek project in Camarillo, a couple of very large projects in Oxnard, a couple of projects in Ventura. They will bring more cars to the 101 and we will experience more gridlock.”

There’s a reason why people want to live in Ventura County, Kettle said, and we have to find ways to support that. “As a community we spend no money on supporting improvements on the 101. Do we need to change that and add a half-cent sales tax, or build a toll road? We would all love to just have the freeway somehow improve, but that’s just not going to happen. The feds and the state can’t fund it. We, as a community, are going to have to solve the problem by making some decisions. It’s a major uphill battle.”

Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks is on the Transportation Board and is one of Kettle’s bosses. She said three things have created the traffic problem: people not living and working in the same place, more development than the roads can handle, and the lack of alternatives to driving in your car.

“As far as development is concerned, when you do an environmental impact report, and you find something that has a significant impact that can’t be mitigated, then by law you have to do an overriding consideration. You can cite things like it will bring lots of money to our city coffers, freeway ramps might be improved, a soccer field,” Parks said.

Parks complains that what happens at the governmental level is often hidden from the public. “Caltrans acknowledges that it will be a significant impact that can’t be mitigated. So if the city of Camarillo approves this project they’ll just have to do what’s called overriding considerations, saying that it’s OK that the city will benefit and the rest of us are stuck in traffic. It’s a real eye opener when you discover how many development projects have been approved in Ventura County. When people see what’s coming and all those cars hit, you just have to shake your head,” Parks said.

According to V.C.T.D. the Conejo Creek Project slated for development in Camarillo would add 40,000 car trips a day. Camarillo Public Works Director Tom Fox oversees that project. He said that not all of those trips would be on Highway 101. The increase, he estimates, would only be about 5 percent on the freeway.

“If the project has more of a negative impact than a benefit, and can’t be corrected or mitigated back to a level that works well, than there is a need for what’s termed overriding considerations; and the Camarillo City Council could determine that they have to make findings that identify why it would make sense to still allow a project. What they have done is offered a solution to help ease the traffic increase. The project would include an auxiliary lane that would improve northbound on/off ramp lanes,” Fox said.

Fox explains that the City Council is not just building more development that would add to the traffic problem, but trying to help ease that impact.

When asked if the residents of the county might resent the fact that Camarillo is benefiting at everyone’s expense, Fox said, “That’s something that will have to be analyzed as the project comes forward. However, it’s not the only project that would have or will be adding traffic to the freeway. Whether the project gets approved or not, there are other projects in and around Ventura County that will get approved. This project is one of the more responsible ones trying to address impact, or at least the traffic they have added.”

Merrill Berge founded Camarillo Sustainable Growth, a 3,000 member grass-roots organization designed to inform the public about development that is affecting traffic. She disagrees with Fox about the impact on the freeway. “According to the environmental impact report, the auxiliary lane improvement on the 101 by Conejo Creek would not mitigate the traffic increase.” She cited this excerpt from the report as a more accurate account.

Conejo Creek Draft EIR–section 4.15 Transportation and Circulation

This improvement (by the Conejo Creek Project) would reduce vehicle queuing at the signaled on/off ramp intersections and thereby indirectly reduce congestion along U.S. 101 mainline. However, traffic generated by the proposed Specific Plan would continue to contribute to unacceptable level of service along the U.S. 101 mainline.

“There is no place to have a complete list of all county building permits issued,” Berge said.

Berge does agree with Fox that his project is not the only one. She has made a list of them.

Projects approved:
• The River Park build-out of 2,500 units with a retail center on 700 acres in Oxnard.
• The Springville development of 1,350 units on 150 acres in Camarillo.
• The Wagon Wheel project of 1,500 units in two high-rise towers on 63 acres in Oxnard.
• The Sakioka Farms industrial, research and development business park on 400 acres in Oxnard.
• The Airport North commercial and industrial development on 330 acres near the Camarillo airport.
• Limoneira East area, 1,500 residential units and 366,000 square feet of commercial and light industrial use on 500 acres in Santa Paula.

Berge said the Sakioka Farms industrial park will be located on farmland between Rice and Rose Avenues. That project alone, according to the E.I.R., is expected to produce 78,000 daily car trips, nearly double the Conejo Creek project, she said. Not all of those trips would necessarily be on Highway 101. The projects would certainly create hundreds of jobs in Ventura County, but there is no current evidence that employees would necessarily live nearby. Berge said that many could actually commute here from L.A.

“No one is taking any responsibility for all this. Caltrans is saying, this is what’s going to happen, and don’t count on us for funding to do anything about it. We will overwhelm our infrastructure,” Berge says. “We are seeing now only a fraction of the traffic jams were going to see in the future. People are going to be focused on this issue and they are going to get mad at elected officials.”


Traffic psychology

Traffic anger has spawned a new discipline called traffic psychology. It is a relatively young subcategory of psychology that studies the relationship between what we think and how we behave on the road.

Leon James is professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii and one of the leaders in this field. He lives in Honolulu, the second most congested city in the country, just behind Los Angeles. He calls his specific discipline driving psychology.

“Something that occurs with drivers in traffic is what I call mental rumination,” James said. “They ruminate over and over about how angry they are. When finally they get to the end of the trip, they keep ruminating by telling stories about it to other people. Then everyday they rehearse that story in their own mind, the complaints against other drivers, the authorities, police, construction workers, even to throwing things at workers, I’ve read.”

James said he’s convinced that the solution offered by more construction is limited and ineffective, yet he finds most people don’t believe that.

“While construction may be necessary, it’s not going to be the solution that most drivers are looking for, namely the increase in time that they spend in traffic. So if the public demands that Caltrans or whoever comes up with a solution, they’re not going to. What remains is how we adjust to the problem that can’t be solved.”

According to James, the most common solution that people have been using for decades is a radio, then their own music and now audio books and Bluetooth. They are trying to make the ride more bearable so they don’t feel anxious.

“Even in ancient Rome, traffic was often at a standstill. The Romans established a standard that endured for centuries.It can take no more that one and a half hours to get from outside the city to its center. Our modern cities have reached that with cars now, so the disaster that the Romans averted is now being experienced by us,” James said.

The solution is in lifestyle, James said. We can either stay at home or center our activities on smaller outlying communities. We can visit a unique antique bookstore in Los Angeles with virtual reality and even make a purchase. But we also lose the charm of the visit. But when that visit takes an hour in traffic to get there, maybe the charm is lost already.

James suggests stopping the negative thinking and trying to find positive ideas. That is where listening to radios and music or good conversations can come in, improving how you talk to yourself about what’s going on. These are new skills to learn. Social networking can offer solutions. We can keep in contact with the world just sitting in one place.

“I call mental venting a state of emotional driving impairment. You’re driving under this influence of emotional stress. It’s dangerous to drive like that. I became a driving psychologist because when I drove I was such a mess. I would rush around taking risks yelling at other cars, upsetting my passengers. I was imitating what I saw on TV and what I saw my parents do,” James said.

Social pioneers like James and engineers like Kettle seem to agree that the alternatives to sitting in traffic are just starting to dawn on many of us.