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Are onramp meters and car pool lanes en route to valley?

Whether car pool lanes produce euphoria or irritation depends on whether you're zipping along in one or watching others whiz by while you crawl in an ordinary lane.

Onramp signals controlling freeway access are temporarily annoying to those eager to zoom, but they help keep tempers in check in the long run, experts say.

Both traffic measures, familiar in more congested places such as the Bay Area and Sacramento, could appear someday on Highway 99 from Lodi to Merced.

Experts are compiling data from San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced counties and feeding numbers into computers. By early January, they should say whether this area is ready for car pool lanes, also known as high-occupancy vehicle lanes, and ramp metering.

"We're having rapid growth in congestion on the region's freeways," consultant Bill Loudon told Stanislaus County supervisors at a recent meeting.

Also, Central Valley job creation isn't keeping pace with housing developments, forcing more workers to drive long distances, Loudon said.

His company, DKS Associates, is conducting the study with help from the California Department of Transportation and transportation agencies in the three counties. They're also looking at less-common toll lanes, where motorists save time by paying to use lanes that are less congested, according to the company's Web site.

Studies suggest that car pool lanes and ramp metering improve traffic flow in large cities.

Car pool lanes typically require two or more occupants per vehicle, though some allow solo drivers in green-friendly hybrids. Car pool lanes on Highway 99 near Sacramento allow solo drivers in nonpeak hours; others require a minimum of two or even three people around the clock.

Drawbacks include longer trips for solo drivers forced into fewer lanes, more lane weaving and demands for enforcement.

David Bonde of Modesto joined a car pool to Alameda County mostly to save gas money, but said he also enjoys shaving a few minutes from his commute by using East Bay car pool lanes. He's not fond of East Bay ramp meters, however, because cars waiting to get on freeways can back up into neighborhoods.

Ramp meters are traffic signals allowing one or two cars to enter a freeway on every green light, typically set to flash every two to five seconds. The closest meter recently was installed at the Mountain House interchange on Interstate 205 just west of Tracy.

'Backed up from Salida to Ceres'

Ramp meters can cause a bump in air pollution but help freeways flow by cutting down on bottlenecks during peak hours, experts say.

Data from 437 U.S. cities suggests ramp metering saved motorists $733 million and 39 million hours in 2005, according to the Texas Transportation Institute's recently released 2007 Urban Mobility Report.

Transportation officials wanting to see whether ramp meters really work turned signals off for seven weeks in 2000 in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Clogs popped up all over the place, and crashes increased 26 percent, they reported.

Also, drivers tend to avoid using freeways for short trips if they know they'll have to wait in lines approaching onramps.

Irmarie Chazaro of Palo Alto, passing through Salida on Saturday, said ramp metering and car pool lanes work well in the Bay Area. But she said she mostly avoids congestion by taking public transportation, Caltrain, to work -- a decision applauded by traffic experts.

DKS Associates is scheduled to release preliminary results of its technical analysis in early January, gather feedback from drivers and government leaders and issue final recommendations in June. The company was asked to assess whether ramp metering and car pool lanes could work in the Northern San Joaquin Valley "in the next 20 years."

William Harrison of Salida said the crunch already is evident on Highway 99 during rush hour along much of Modesto.

"It's backed up from Salida to Ceres," he said. "You're looking for an accident and there is none. It's just traffic."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

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