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Transit officials want to make the Arroyo Seco Parkway safer, and preserve its history

Scene after a traffic collision on the northbound 110 parkway near Highland Park.
Scene after a traffic collision on the northbound 110 parkway near Highland Park.
John Rabe
Scene after a traffic collision on the northbound 110 parkway near Highland Park.
Motorists at 110-S Avenue 52 on-ramp have to merge into 60 mph traffic from a standstill.
Jerry Gorin
Scene after a traffic collision on the northbound 110 parkway near Highland Park.
July 24, 1979: "One man was killed this morning when he lost control of his car on the Pasadena Freeway, crashed into guard rail and landed in the Arroyo Seco."
Michael Haering/LAPL/Herald-Examiner Collection

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The Arroyo Seco Parkway - formerly the Pasadena Freeway - is one of the oldest freeways in the west. Opened in 1940, the narrow, windy road connecting Pasadena and downtown served the city well for decades. But over the last 20 years both motorists and transit officials have seen the peaceful mountain pass turn into a high-speed raceway. It's caused a number of accidents and constant headaches for local residents.

"It's sketchy, especially at night," says a Highland Park resident named Ephraim. "I've almost been in a couple of accidents, getting on and off the freeway. But I've been here for 5 years, and I've almost gotten used to it."

Ephraim lives 2 blocks from the 110 on Avenue 57. He says he's learned to maneuver the nearest on-ramp, but it's still scary. "It's basically a stop sign like you'd have at an intersection between side streets. Except you're stopping and then getting on the freeway, instead of making a left or a right or whatever you would do at a normal intersection. So you're going from zero to sixty as quickly as possible to make sure the people behind you aren't getting backed up."

Off-Ramp producer Kevin Ferguson also lives in Highland Park, and he knows the challenge all too well. "The 110 is a very windy freeway," says Ferguson. "A lot of these onramps, you don't know what's coming up because it's right at the end of a curve."

In fact, since as far back as the early 90's, commuters have voiced their frustrations with the once state-of-the-art Arroyo Seco parkway. For some, an easy solution would be to straighten or widen the freeway. But that's easier said than done, particularly because the Arroyo Seco Parkway is an historic freeway and there are laws protecting it. On top of that, there isn't a whole lot of space to work with in the corridor; some houses and apartment buildings sit right up against the road.

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) has therefore had to think creatively. In its first initiative, finally completed in 2011, they re-classified the freeway as a parkway, giving them permission to lower the speed limit to 55 miles an hour. While Caltrans is not an enforcement agency - it's up to the CHP to do that - they say changing the name should help change peoples' attitudes about the road.

"Hopefully that changes peoples' perceptions when they're driving it," says Caltrans Senior Planner Linda Taira, "so that they're not thinking that they can be racing down the roadway at 80 miles an hour. "They should be thinking of it more as an arterial, as a regular street."

Taira says the new parkway branding and the new speed limit signs are just the tip of the iceberg. Earlier this month, Caltrans and its partners released the results of a 20-year-long, $650,000 research project that looked at ways to improve the long term safety and mobility of the Arroyo Seco Parkway. The study recommends potentially further reducing the speed limit to 45 miles an hour, and also suggests re-working the parkways' outside lanes.

"Our folks have been looking at an option in which we would stripe the outer lane in a certain way so that when you're driving you know that it's different," says Taira. "When you come to that stop sign and you're trying to get on, that outer lane is intended for traffic that will be slower."

The study also suggests implementing a dynamic system similar to the one currently used at the northbound 110 to I-5 interchange. Depending on traffic, a series of lights on the 110 either turn on or off to designate a 2nd exit lane onto the I-5. Taira says the system has faced mixed reaction at public meetings, but that a recent UC Berkeley study claims that accidents have dropped significantly in that area.

Maybe the most daunting part of this project is the fact that these traffic problems plague nearly the entire 6 mile stretch between Pasadena and downtown. Anyone who's driven on the parkway knows many people speed and that it's pretty easy to want to join them. And the on and off-ramps on that stretch, especially around Highland Park, are all pretty treacherous. The southbound exit on Avenue 60 leaves you with about 20 feet off the freeway before you have to come to a complete stop. The southbound exit at Avenue 52 comes to an intersection at the top of a hill, where a stopped car is almost completely out of sight when you're exiting.

Kevin Ferguson has his own favorite: an entrance going northbound at Avenue 43. "You have about 5 seconds notice whether a car will be in your lane," he says. "As soon as that looks clear, or relatively clear, you take your foot off the brake and you floor it. And you just hope that anybody who happens to be coming around the bend at that time sees you for long enough that they'll slow down."

Caltrans has posted its recommendations to their website, and say they want a thorough public discourse to give commuters the improvements that they want.