Salem Spitz, veteran of many Los Angeles freeway battles, chuckled when a caller described Northern Virginia's public outcry over proposed highway on-ramp stoplights.
He has heard it all before.
A decade ago, Spitz was city traffic engineer for Long Beach, the seaside metropolis just south of Los Angeles pierced by the San Diego freeway. He remembered how an aide to the city manager exploded at the first mention of a plan to put stop and go "meters" on the city's ramps to that highway. "You mean they're going to keep the freeway open for all those people in Orange County? And keep our people waiting?" the man said.
The palm-lined streets of Long Beach were not going to drown in automobiles waiting to get on the freeway just to help the upstarts from Orange County's suburban sprawl. Many city officials said it was time to put their foot down, just like the Alexandria and Fairfax County officials who now are talking about taking the Virginia highway department to court to block implementation of a $22.9 million computer-operated ramp light system along Shirley Highway and I-66 inside the Capital Beltway this spring.
The Northern Virginia officials fear the lights will force commuters from Washington's inner suburbs to sit idle at red lights on the entrance ramps while motorists from the outer counties zip into Washington, a concern not unlike those heard in southern California a decade ago.
Yet today all is quiet in Long Beach, as well as Westwood, Culver City, Hollywood and dozens of other communities in the 500-mile Los Angeles freeway system now served by on-ramp stoplights. More than 600 of the area's 1,000 on-ramps have the meters and plans are going forward for a fully computerized network designed to play southern California's collosal maze of multilane throughways like a finely tuned harp.
James Bell, an editor at The Los Angeles Times, said a ramp meter on the Santa Monica Freeway sometimes forces him to wait as long as four or five minutes. But still, Bell said, "I think basically it's a good thing, because it does regulate the flow on the freeway and does make the traffic go better."
Most southern California motorists treat the on-ramp stoplights as no more troublesome than the smog in October or the recent defection of Dodger first baseman Steve Garvey to San Diego. "The compliance rate over 90 percent has been unexpectedly high," said Gary Foxen, assistant traffic engineer with the Automobile Club of Southern California. "The motorist sees the value that the meters have."
It did not look quite so easy 10 years ago, when highway engineers faced the same resistance that now threatens the metered on-ramps in Northern Virginia. Like Fairfax County and Alexandria, California communities close to downtown Los Angeles feared their motorists would be kept off the freeway so that drivers from more distant areas could speed into the city without delay.
California highway planners moved swiftly to soften the resistance. They provided state money for new lanes, alternate route signs and carefully tuned surface street stoplights to reduce and ease the flow of traffic near the on-ramps. They argued strongly that a system-wide metering system would help everyone in a metropolitan area, where long highway trips were routine.
"Generally everybody gets a benefit," said John E. Reeves, chief of traffic operations for the California Transportation Department office here. "The motorist may lose a little on the ramp, but they will make it up further on in the system" as the traffic flow smooths.
Chicago originated metered on-ramps in the late 1960s, highway engineers said. Los Angeles began to install them in 1970 and now has far more than any other metropolitan area. Wire loops placed in slots cut into highway lanes and on-ramps themselves help trigger many of the stop and go lights automatically. They also report highway speeds and congestion back to a computerized operations center two blocks from City Hall.
A huge electronic map on one wall blinks red, yellow and green lights, signalling states of congestion on the major freeways now linked to the computer system. The state expects to spend a total of about $16 million once the whole system of meters and sensors is complete, somewhat less than the projected $22.9 million Virginia system because much of the California system was built with preinflation 1970 dollars.
Richard J. Murphy, senior engineer for state traffic operations systems here and a 36-year veteran of the California freeway system, said state studies show the on-ramp meters help produce a steady flow of traffic, which saves time and gasoline and reduces accidents.
As the highway system neared its present length of about 700 miles in the late 1950s "we noticed that the minute any new section of the freeway would be opened it would quickly be overutilized and congested," Murphy said. The high speed road could carry three times as many cars as surface roads could in the same time and distance, and so attracted more motorists than it could handle easily.
After experiments on the Hollywood and Harbor freeways, engineers decided that adding new lanes in the most congested spots and installing on-ramp meters would regulate the flow. In Long Beach, Spitz said, city officials also posted new signs encouraging motorists to use surface streets while traveling within the city.
"The problem was not people who wanted to drive out of town. The problem was the people who wanted to drive two or three miles across Long Beach," he said. Murphy said engineers also accepted one harsh reality: At certain times of the day they would have to turn off the stoplights on on-ramps from the most crowded parts of downtown so that city streets would not back up calamitously. This makes the Harbor Freeway today a nearly impassable jungle at certain points in the rush hour, "but we just have to let the freeway system break down" to avoid a total jam up on the downtown city streets, Murphy said.
If Los Angeles motorists have any annoyance with the metered on-ramps, they usually express it when a single driver uses the "high occupancy vehicle (HOV)" lanes designed to let cars with two or more people bypass the meter.
California Highway Patrol officers rarely stop and ticket on-ramp violators, but there are exceptions. When metered on-ramps with HOV lanes first began, highway officials heard complaints about a man in a late model sports car who daily pulled around the long line of homebound commuters and entered the freeway on one particular HOV lane.
The Highway Patrol finally laid a trap for him and caught him. "The minute they stopped him," Reeves said, "all the people who had been waiting in line got out of their cars and applauded." CAPTION: Picture 1, Cars wait for green light to enter Santa Monica Freeway in Los Angeles. Many [Long Beach] city officials said it was time to put their foot down. Picture 2, Lights that will control the entrance ramp to Interstate Rte. 66 at Glebe Road in Arlington remain covered with dark plastic. By James A. Parcell -- The Washinton Post