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Work under way to expand North County's freeways

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If you have driven on Interstate 15, it's hard to miss the express lanes in the center that are being expanded to cover a 20-mile stretch between state Route 78 in Escondido and state Route 163 in San Diego.

The innovative concept, first of its kind in San Diego County, will eventually be part of an interconnected regional system of express lanes.

The San Diego Association of Governments and California Department of Transportation have been working together to create a plan to relieve traffic congestion along the busiest points of San Diego's freeways and highways, and construction is being planned or already under way on interstates 5 and 15, SR-78, and SR-76 corridors.

Interstate 15 to get better connectivity

The express lanes on I-15 are being built at a cost of $1.3 billion and will be completed next year. One key feature is the addition of rapid transit stations for buses at key points along the freeway.

There are a few such stations with direct access ramps, at exits like Sabre Springs Parkway near Poway, and where state Route 56 connects with the freeway, where people can get off the bus and then carpool or drive. But many more transit stations are planned.

The long-term goal is to increase access to public transportation so that residents of certain neighborhoods in areas such as Rancho Penasquitos, Rancho Bernardo, Mira Mesa and Escondido could actually leave their cars at home and commute to work, shopping and entertainment.

"We're trying to put transit stations in areas where land use predicts high growth, dense population and mixed-use development," said Charles "Muggs" Stoll, director of land use and transportation planning at SANDAG.

SANDAG expects this will create more demand for parking, so it has brought in a design-build contractor to construct a multilevel parking structure at Sabre Springs and plans to build similar ones in Rancho Bernardo and Escondido.

Express bus routes will be replaced with new buses and rapid transit stations along new routes, with more frequency all through the day. It will be like a light rail system, which will make for a quicker commute on a more predictable schedule with limited stops, Stoll said.

Additional lanes for I-5 and SR-78

SR-78 has brought San Diego a new distinction: The congestion at Nordahl Road near San Marcos is so bad that it has put San Diego on a list of cities with the worst traffic snarls.

Stoll admitted that SR-78 represents the worst bottleneck in the county.

"This is because we've made tremendous progress on the 15 and 5, which used to be the worst bottlenecks before. With the managed lanes and (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes on the 15 and 5, the 78 has been bumped up to the worst position," he said.

Caltrans is building auxiliary lanes near Nordahl on SR-78 East.

In the 2050 Regional Transportation Plan, SANDAG is looking to add one high-occupancy vehicle lane to the SR-78 corridor. Stoll said funding is expected in the latter part of this decade for the project and that the agency is working with all the cities along SR-78.

A Sprinter line was introduced in the area a couple years ago, and the agency plans to double track it so that frequency and capacity can be increased.

SR-78 runs from I-5 in Oceanside up to I-15 in Escondido and then cuts through the eastern part of California, covering almost the entire width of the state.

On I-5, one express car pool lane will be built in each direction from La Jolla to Oceanside in 2013. Construction on a second lane is being planned for later. The project cost will be about $3.5 billion.

SR-76 to go from two to four lanes

State Route 76 begins at I-5 and connects Oceanside and the unincorporated communities of Bonsall, Fallbrook, Pala, Pauma Valley, Rincon and Lake Henshaw.

Widening of the highway was scheduled in three phases. Phase 1 was wrapped in 1999.

The current second phase of the project focuses on the stretch between Melrose Drive and South Mission Road within Oceanside and the community of Bonsall. Project improvements consist of realignment and widening the highway from two to four lanes. Construction began in January 2010 and is expected to be completed in September of 2012.

"The widening was approved in a Transnet program back in 1988, with a half-cent sales tax measure that is local money, not state or federal funds. The unincorporated areas along 76 have grown; there's a high accident rate because it was a two-lane highway," Stoll said.

The third phase, planned to be completed in 2015, proposes to complete the link between I-5 and I-15 by extending previous improvements from South Mission Road to I-15. This segment of the project is now in the environmental review phase.

Within the 2050 Regional Transportation Plan, Stoll pointed to these projects as the big ticket items that will begin progress in the next five years in North County.

Impact of recession on driving and contractor bids

While an increase in traffic and population necessitates expansions, it's interesting to note that traffic has actually dropped since its peak in 2006.

Stoll agreed that the recession has impacted driving. As unemployment increased, there were fewer work and leisure trips. The rise in gas prices also contributed to the ebb.

"This is also a national trend. The number of vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, is a barometer. But we look at long-term trends and demographic shifts. We do show steady growth, but slower than we predicted four years ago," Stoll said.

He also noted that one of the bright spots for construction has been the sales tax program that has funded such projects and provided steady work for the industry.

But economic conditions and a dearth of private projects have prompted suppliers and contractors to bid lower than before on public work.

"We've seen very competitive bids recently, and we've been getting more for our dollar."

Nagappan is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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