Caught in Urban Crawl. Los Angeles examines and pursues options, including a subway, to declog highways. STILL LIFE IN LOS ANGELES

`YES, I commute and I hate it,'' says Kerry Trombetta, a single mother of three who spends three hours a day in her 1987 Subaru for a 40-mile-each-way shuffle into work. Ms. Trombetta lives in Thousand Oaks, and drives into nearby Los Angeles because her salary is one-third higher than what she can earn in her own community. So she considers the extra hassles - 90 minutes of stop/start driving, averaging 26.6 m.p.h. amid hulking trucks and capricious motorcycles - worth it, at least monetarily.

``My employer understands that I get here when I get here,'' she says of the commute that stretches to two hours each way on Fridays. ``I can't control the traffic.''

Neither can a growing chorus of angry commuters and the southern California-area government officials who endure their strong language in city hall meetings as well as mountains of irate mail. There are 6 million registered vehicles in Los Angeles County alone, say officials, consuming 628,000 hours a year and 72 million gallons of gas over 504 miles of congested highways (compared with 30 miles in 1956). When a recent Los Angeles Times poll asked respondents to list two or three of their pet peeves, 71 percent mentioned some problem in getting around.

``It's gotten noticeably worse here in the past two years,'' says Ellen Vukovich, a lifetime Los Angeles resident. ``Now when you want to go out for the smallest errand, you have to plan around peak hours.''

Peak hours are already three hours in the morning and four in the evening. And projections for the future are even more dire. The Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC) estimated two years ago that what is now a 90-minute trip down Route 405 would take three hours in the year 2000. And on one particular stretch of the Ventura Highway, average traffic flow would slow to 7 m.p.h.

With 5 million more residents expected by 2010 - and no plans beyond about 23 miles of new freeways - what is being done about all this? Part of what confronts any citizen, public official, or legislator in getting a handle on Los Angeles traffic is the tangle of county, city, state, and federal jurisdictions - each with various plans at various levels of funding and completion. Besides the 84 municipal entities that make up Los Angeles County, there are intercounty state and federal regulatory agencies.

``The thing to do in L.A. is the kind of voluntary and common-sense measures that were so successful when we took traffic management seriously during the Olympics in 1984,'' says Peter Gordon, a professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California. Mr. Gordon and many other experts have pinpointed southern California's ``love affair with the private automobile'' as the major obstacle to plans for easing traffic. The answer to that, say recent studies, is ``traffic demand management.''

``That means making better use of what you have before you go on a money-spending binge for new projects,'' says Gordon.

Here is where transportation and traffic initiatives in southern California stand at the moment:

MetroRail: The first segment of a $6 billion system of mass-transit subways and light-rail lines is under construction with a 4.4-mile segment from downtown's Union Station to Wilshire Boulevard. This $1.2 billion segment is expected to be finished by 1993. Various plans to continue the system to outlying areas - most notably a 17-mile stretch into the San Fernando Valley - are in various stages of proposal, many stalled in disagreements and funding battles. Controversy rages over whether enough people will choose to ride over Los Angeles's sprawling metropolis to make MetroRail financially viable, and whether use of the rail will remove cars from clogged freeways.

Mayor Bradley's Traffic Plan: In June 1987, Mayor Tom Bradley introduced a major, 13-part plan to improve the free flow of traffic and reduce air pollution. Four parts have been implemented by executive order, eight more are up for approval by the city council. Besides ride-sharing, parking enforcement, gridlock fines, and automated traffic signal surveillance, the most notable aspect of the mayor's plan has been a provision to remove 70 percent of the large, heavy-duty trucks from streets and roads in the morning and evening rush hours.

The plans, now in the finance committee with a subsequent vote by the full council scheduled for early this month, includes two major components: No more than 30 percent of a trucking fleet would be allowed on the streets between 6 and 9 a.m. and from 4 to 7 p.m.; shippers and receivers with five or more deliveries or pickups a week would have to remain open at least four hours each workday between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. or face heavy fines.

``If you are going to have an increase of population by 50 percent [by the year 2000] and virtually no increase in highways, you're going to have to make more efficient use of what you've got,'' says Bill Bicker, the mayor's aide for transportation. ``That means more incentives for off-peak usage.''

Regional Mobility Plan by Southern California Association of Governments: Mandated by state law to produce a regional mobility plan every four years, SCAG's 1989 proposals have interrelated goals with an air-quality and growth-management plan. Since for every 1,000 cars today, SCAG estimates there will be 1,420 by the year 2010, drastic reduction in demand for highways is called for. Besides advocating flextime strategies, modified workweeks (with such features as work-at-home, telecommunication options), parking management, and truck rescheduling, a key aspect of the plan is jobs-housing balance.

``Counties and jurisdictions are going to have to increase the number of jobs in house-rich areas and increase the number of houses in job-rich areas,'' says SCAG's Mario Guerra. Other goals: Achieve a 19 percent transit share (or threefold increase) in home-to-work trips by 2010; eliminate 3 million home-to-work trips by 2010; reduce transportation emissions to 1987 levels; retain 1984 mobility levels.

LACTC's ``On the Road to the Year 2000'': This plan calls for $4.5 billion worth of short-term freeway construction projects - extra lanes, some new roads, better exits and entrances - but says the most optimistic projection of funds falls $1.5 billion short. Besides a renewed emphasis on crisis management - major truck accidents alone occur on the average of one per day - there are two new aspects to the plan. One is a first-time assessment of city streets, calling for $150 million a year in additional funding to maintain them.

The other could become a national model for what is known as the ``smart street'' concept. Electronic sensors in the street would enable traffic controllers at a separate location to assess traffic congestion and manipulate area traffic lights to alleviate congestion. The first such study is already under way in a 12.3-mile section of the Santa Monica Freeway and adjacent streets. The project, which would cost about $50,000 per intersection, would add up to $400 million, if all major intersections in Los Angeles were wired.

The key words to all these programs, say officials, are awareness, personal commitment, and - ultimately - money. Some aspects of each plan are already funded, many are not - and shortfalls mean battles for taxpayer dollars with other social programs.

``The other challenge is to people's refusal to divorce themselves from their marriage to the auto,'' says Gary Moon, a SCAG traffic planner. ``[We] have to convince people to get out of their cars, ride in a van or car pool, take the bus, or not go at all. You can have all these plans, but if no one cooperates, the plan will not succeed.''

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