By LARRY KANTER Staff Reporter It’s a classic good-news/bad-news scenario. On the one hand, after years of recession, the L.A. region’s economy finally is on the rebound especially in the San Fernando Valley, thanks in large part to the entertainment and multimedia boom in Burbank, Studio City and North Hollywood. But on the other hand, have you seen the traffic lately? Increased highway congestion is the by-product of economic health. And as the Southern California economy continues along its upward trajectory, the morning and afternoon commutes to and through the Valley are likely to become even more vexing, transportation experts warn. “In the short term, the financial rebound is leading to increased trips and increased congestion,” explained Patrick Michell, principal transportation planner for the Southern California Association of Governments, which is completing a three-year study on how to improve the region’s road and highway infrastructure. “In the long term,” Michell added, “this trend is going to get even worse.” Statistics from state and local transit officials appear to bear out that grim prediction. After largely flat growth in the first half of the decade, the number of vehicles on L.A. County freeways is on the rise again, according to the California Department of Transportation. Vehicle counts were up by 2.2 percent between 1995 and 1996 (the most recent figures available), the most significant jump since the late 1980s. By comparison, in each of the years between 1990 and 1994, the traffic count grew by, at the most, 1 percent. Traffic began to pick up again in 1995, when volume increased by 1.4 percent over 1994. Reflecting the region’s economic rebound, freeway interchanges throughout the Valley also are experiencing a big increase in daily traffic. The junction of the Ventura (101) and Glendale (134) freeways in North Hollywood, for example, has seen the average number of vehicles rise 8.3 percent over the past five years from 387,000 vehicles a day in 1991 to 419,000 in 1996, according to Caltrans. That’s the biggest increase in the Valley and it coincides with a boom in the entertainment industry located nearby in Burbank, Studio City and Universal City. Further west, the interchange of the Ventura and San Diego (405) freeways saw a 3.5 percent increase in average daily vehicles, from 518,500 in 1991 to 536,500 in 1996. And at the northern end of the Valley, the junction of the Golden State (5) and Simi Valley (118) freeways has seen a 4.2 percent jump over the same period, from 307,500 to 320,500. And it’s not just the freeways. According to the city of L.A.’s Department of Transportation, traffic also is on the rise at many of the Valley’s key surface-street intersections. The average number of vehicles traveling each morning through the intersection of Sepulveda and Victory boulevards, for example, went from 6,303 to 7,273 between 1995 and 1996 a jump of about 15 percent. In the afternoon, the average number of vehicles traveling through the intersection of Lankershim and Ventura boulevards rose from 3,292 to 3,834, an increase of more than 16 percent. Michell warns that the congestion will worsen, and not just because of an expanding economy. Southern California’s population, he said, is expected to increase by 6.7 million by 2020; the Valley’s population is expected to jump by about 500,000 over the same period. In the face of such staggering numbers, is there any relief on the way? While admitting that the problem is somewhat daunting, transit agencies are exploring a number of options that they say could ease the burden on L.A. commuters. Caltrans, for example, plans to add a carpool lane to all of L.A. County’s freeways by 2000, said Rick Holland, an agency spokesman. A recently installed lane on the San Diego Freeway through the Valley is credited with easing the daily commute at least for those willing to partner up with other drivers. The agency also plans to expand its so-called “smart freeway” program, which uses electronic message boards to inform drivers about upcoming traffic problems and direct them to alternate routes along city streets before they become ensnared in a full-fledged Sig-alert. By linking freeways with nearby surface streets, planners say they can capitalize on any excess capacity which may exist on parallel traffic arteries. On city streets, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority recently announced plans to synchronize traffic signals at 109 intersections throughout the east-central San Fernando Valley by 2000. According to a 1994 study by the L.A. Department of Transportation, such systems led to a 12 percent improvement in travel times, a 32 percent reduction in delays and a 30 percent drop in stops compared to traditional signal systems. Transportation planners also suggest a program of “smart shuttles” shuttle buses that would move commuters via dedicated thoroughfares to central business districts or regional transit hubs. While such suggestions may draw little more than cynical sneers from gridlocked commuters, SCAG’s Michell insists they can work. “We only have to get a small percentage of people into mass transit to handle the excess demand,” he said. “If people find it faster and more convenient, they’ll use it.” Meanwhile, a recent study suggests that the traffic infrastructure exacts a heavy toll on Angelenos and not just in lengthy delays and frayed tempers. According to the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a Washington, D.C. public policy group, L.A. drivers spend more on car repairs than drivers anywhere else in the country largely as a result of deteriorating road conditions. The study found that 45 percent of highways in the L.A.-Long Beach metropolitan area are in poor or mediocre condition. The average driver here pays an extra $1,831 over the life of his or her car due to tire wear, extra maintenance and reduced fuel efficiency caused by poor road conditions, the study found; the average U.S. driver, on the other hand, pays just $420 in such costs.