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New express lanes for I-805 South

Commuters on county’s second-busiest freeway to get relief from traffic

As one of the main arteries running through heavily populated urban San Diego, the Interstate 805 corridor sees an average daily traffic of 160,000 to 260,000 vehicles, with congestion lasting from two to four hours.

Given that it connects commuters from South County with North Park, Mission and Sorrento valleys and UTC, the San Diego Association of Governments projects that traffic will grow to more than 330,000 vehicles by 2030, prolonging congestion for six hours or more.

Traffic has increased by 300 percent since the freeway first became operational in 1975. Its location, just one mile north of the U.S-Mexico border in San Ysidro, also contributes to heavy traffic.

In light of this, express lane projects planned along a 28-mile stretch of the I-805 are significant to alleviating traffic congestion along both the south and northbound sections of the freeway.

For the I-805 South, the $1.4 billion express lanes project represents an 11-mile stretch from East Palomar Street in Chula Vista to the I-805 and state Route 15 junction.

“In the South Bay, there isn’t very good transit access for commuters -- what is there is only for local transit,” said Gustavo Dallarda, 805 corridor director with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).

“I heard that a bus trip from Otay Mesa to downtown takes two hours. With the HOV lanes we’re building, that trip should come down to 20 minutes.”

The first phase, which is under way now and will be completed in 2014, has a budget of $200 million and focuses on an eight-mile stretch of a high occupancy vehicle (HOV) or carpool lane from East Palomar to state Route 94.

The express lane will serve a planned bus rapid transit system, carpools, vanpools, motorcycles and clean air vehicles. In spring this year, construction also began on a transit station, park and ride and a direct access ramp. Sound walls will also be built along the eight-mile stretch.

Granite Construction was awarded three key contracts for the express lane, transit station and ramp, while a fourth contract for the sound wall has been given to Western Rim Constructors.

Explaining how public transit will benefit, Dallarda said the new bus rapid transit system starts at the Otay Mesa border and goes across the state Route 125 toll road to dedicated lanes on East Palomar Street. Once it reaches I-805, it will use the direct access ramp and the buses will be on a dedicated lane.

For now, they have to get off the HOV lanes to reach state Route 94, but there is a separate project to connect the buses directly to SR-94 and then onto downtown San Diego.

Dallarda said in terms of construction challenges, building express lanes in the median area of the freeway is difficult -- especially when it requires road closures, which involve a lot of planning.

Caltrans is working with the contractors to reduce dust and noise pollution in areas that are close to homes like the East Palomar area.

Community support has been plentiful, given that the I-805 is the second-most congested freeway in the county, Dallarda said, but funding has been the real challenge.

For this first phase, $60 million comes from Proposition 1B, which was approved in 2006. The last project to get Proposition 1B funds was awarded last year, so Dallarda does not expect any more funding from that source. The remaining balance of $140 million comes from the TransNet half-cent sales tax and federal funds.

Phase 2, which is scheduled to begin in 2015 and completed in 2020, will expand the express lanes from one in each direction to two. There will also be a couple more transit stations and direct connectors between HOV lanes on the Interstates 805 and 15.

“It’s going to be challenging to get funds for Phase 2, since the sales tax is not intended to fund 100 percent of the projects, only part of it,” Dallarda said. “So we need additional sources of funds.”

But having projects environmentally cleared and ready to go makes them easier to fund -- and he pointed out that the entire $1.4 billion project has been approved and is ready.

-Nagappan is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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