KBUU NEWS SPECIAL: WHY IS PCH OUT OF CONTROL? 2015 SAFETY STUDY LISTS 130 PCH PROJECTS – WE COUNT 115 NOT EVEN PLANNED
Written by 991KBU on October 20, 2023
Why is Pacific Coast Highway posted for a 45 miles per hour speed limit in the heart of a residential neighborhood?
Why is PCH still laid out to accommodate 55 mile per hour speeds … the highway’s original design speed when it was built in 1947?
Those questions may come up at the Malibu city council meeting Monday night.
KBUU News has been covering these issues since we went on the air 10 years ago.
In 2015 … we covered a PCH Safety Study … funded by a big federal grant … and accepted by the Malibu city council;
The city council was going to fix PCH. Other priorities have intervened, including a major fire disaster, an injection of politics, and a city council more intent on investigating petty political matters than carnage on PCH.
There were 130 specific safety projects proposed. Some of them very simple … like adding countdown clocks to pedestrian walk signals .
Some of them were very complex … a traffic circle at Encinal Canyon Road. Narrowing PCH at the western Malibu beaches … to two lanes each way.
In eastern Malibu … widen the shoulder lane … narrow the traffic lanes … build safe places for pedestrians.
There were 130 specific projects in that 2015 traffic study.
115 of them are still sitting on a shelf at city hall … and at Caltrans headquarters. They are not funded, and not underway.
To be sure, PCH is owned and operated by Caltrans. And Caltrans is big, slow and dumb to respond to problems that it has created … or allowed to fester. It’s not the city’s fault. But the city has a lot more it could have done, and needs to do.
The city put out a news release yesterday … pointing out that our local town has spent 39 million dollars making the state highway that runs through us … safer.
Some of those projects were major … like adding a bike lane and widening the shoulder next to Zuma Beach. A huge safety improvement, magnified by banning parking on the inland side of the highway at Zuma, while Coastal wasn’t looking.
Some of them are so obvious that it simply astounding that they haven’t been built. Priority #4 and Number #24: adding a center median and sidewalks along PCH at Paradise Cove Road … where heavy pedestrian traffic walks in the road.
Three pedestrian fatalities there since 2015.
Some of the 8 projects listed by the city haven’t happened yet, despite mighty efforts by the city staff. The median narrowing and shoulder widening project proposed by the city .. using Metro money … on PCH west of Pepperdine is on hold … after the project bids came in way over budget.
But here are other PCH traffic safety projects … that are not even on the construction project wish list … nor are they proposed by Caltrans.
The list of 130 projects was recommended after an exhaustive survey, including public hearings, is here: https://malibucity.org/DocumentCenter/View/12650/Appendix-4H?bidId=
PCH DESIGNED IN 1946 FOR 55 MPH SPEEDS, BUT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE REPLACED BY THE MALIBU FREEWAY
KBUU News stopped by the Caltrans archives in Sacramento a few years back … and we pulled the original design documents from 1946.
The designers were called on for plans for a four lane inter-city highway … linking Santa Monica through the countryside to Oxnard … with a design speed of 55 miles an hour east of Malibu Creek.
65 miles an hour west of the creek.
The idea was that a freeway would replace PCH in a few years … and then the old highway could become a city street with normal city speeds.
The freeway would have had a massive four level interchange at the Civic Center. It would have passed through what is now Malibu High School. It would have been connected to a freeway across the bay between Topanga and the 10 freeway.
All that mercifully was put to death … got cancelled … in 1964.
But the 14-foot lanes … gradual curves and long sight lines on the original country highway persist to this day in most of the city. The only design change has been the addition of a center left turn lane in 1964.
SPEED LIMITS STILL SET IN 10-MILE CHUNKS FROM SM PIER, UNING 1964 RADAR SURVEY METHODS
That was about the time that the first speed survey was taken by radar … to set the speed limit.
Caltrans broke up the highway into 10 mile segments … and its engineers picked the places where the speeds were greatest. Average speeds were set based on the fastest possible traffic speeds they could clock.
That’s where they have conducted the speed surveys ever since. The actual stated purpose has been to measure the speed at the fastest possible place – where the most cars are moved – and then set the speed limit at about the rate that 85 percent of those cars travel.
Every 10 years ..the county and then the city council approved the finished radar speed survey … based on those 10 mile chunks of PCH starting at the Santa Monica Pier.
Caltrans then sets the speed limits based on the city approval of the radar survey.
The city does not control the speed limit … but the city could control the radar survey differently.
If the city were broken into smaller segments … the radar survey would show slower traffic … and the speed limit would have to drop.
Until very recently … the speed limit had to be set close to the average speed reached by 85 percent of the traffic during light traffic conditions.
Two years ago … cities were allowed to drop a speed limit by 5 miles an hour … sometimes 10 miles an hour … if there 85th percentile speed limit is “more than reasonable or safe.”
That’s what the City of LA did down in Pacific Palisades. The average speed of traffic down there … the 85th percentile speed … is above 60 miles an hour.
But the City of LA sent a letter to Caltrans back in 1964 … saying that the landslides that occurred back in the 1950s made 55 miles an hour too fast as a speed limit on PCH.
The speed limit was arbitrarily dropped to 45 on PCH in Los Angeles.
Malibu could demand that Caltrans do this, drop the speed limit below the 85th percentile, as the new state law allows. But it would require more enforcement … and that may not be coming.
Fun fact: LA traffic cops do not patrol PCH from Coastline to Entrada … because no radar-based tickets will stand up in court where a radar survey shows 60 mile an hour traffic is normal.
Malibu has never applied to the state to declare the current PCH speed limits more than is reasonable or safe.
EXPERTS AND COPS SAY: DROPPING A SPEED LIMIT ALONE WILL NOT SLOW TRAFFIC
But lowering the speed limit alone will not work. Traffic studies have shown that arbitrarily dropping a speed limit to 40 or 35 will not be effective in slowing drivers on a roadway … with a 55 mile an hour design speed. Motorists will drive as fast as they feel comfortable.
And PCH in eastern Malibu is designed for 55 miles per hour: Lanes are freeway width. There are no pedestrian sidewalks or bulbouts.
There are long unbroken straightaways.
The only way to slow traffic is with a combination of design changes … speed limit reductions … and concentrated enforcement. Perhaps speed radar cameras.
Traffic calming has never been proposed by Caltrans or the City of Malibu. When the City of LA tried it on a beachfront semi-freeway near LAX … there was a near riot … and it had the lane narrowing and traffic calming had to be ripped out.
SPEED CAMERAS ILLEGAL IN (ALMOST ALL OF) CALIFORNIA, BUT MALIBU JUST MISSED THE BUS FOR THAT
Speed cameras are actually illegal in California … at least … they were until this month. The governor just signed a bill allowing speed cameras …. as a test … in six California cities …
Not Malibu. As KBUU reported last spring … Malibu was all but silent when the legislature picked the cities that can use the cameras for a test. Six could have been seven.
Speed cameras today are legal now in Glendale, Long Beach and Los Angeles. Also … San Francisco … Oakland … San Jose.
County supervisor Lindsay Horvath is asking the governor this week for permission – somehow – to install speed cameras in Malibu. That would probably take a change in state law … and the Legislature is out of session until next January.
Last spring … Malibu Lost Hills Captain Jennifer Seetoo responded to the KBUU News item about the pending bill. She sent a letter to the Malibu legislative delegation … asking for Malibu to be added to the list of cities allowed to install speed cameras.
As near as we can tell … that was the only local voice. Malibu was not added ot the new bill.
They are simply not legal in Malibu. We will see if the governor can find a way around that.
One other thing … the maximum tickets from the speed cameras start at 50 dollars for going 11 miles per hour over the speed limit … up to 100 dollars for drivers going 11 mph over the speed limit … and $200 for drivers going 26 to 99 mph over the speed limit.
At Wednesday’s news conference … KBUU posed the question to Captain Seetoo … if a camera that only spits out a traffic at 56 miles an hour in eastern Malibu … with a 50 dollar fine and no points against a drivers license …. is that is really a deterrent???
She said it’s a start.