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Major freeway improvements move forward

Projects include new bridge to fix worst bottleneck in North County

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The newly completed San Luis Rey River Bridge on state Route 76 in Oceanside.

There are 22 freeway and transportation-related construction projects under way across the county this summer, half of them in North County.

As with most construction projects, things tend to get worse before they get better, but the end result should make North County commuters happy.

Construction to realign and widen state Route 76 — which stretches from Interstate 5 out past Interstate 15, crossing through Oceanside and linking the communities of Bonsall, Fallbrook, Pala, Pauma Valley, Rincon and Lake Henshaw — began in 1994. The three-phase project is turning a meandering country byway into a conventional highway that can eventually be widened to accommodate six lanes. The first phase, SR-76 West Segment, improved the highway from I-5 to Melrose Drive and was completed in 1999.

Work on the second phase (SR-76 Middle Segment), located between Melrose Drive in Oceanside and South Mission Road in Bonsall, began in January 2010. Caltrans I-5/SR-76 Project Manager Ann Fox said construction on the Middle Segment should be wrapped up this winter.

The estimated cost of SR-76 Middle Segment is $171.4 million. Funding sources include $75.6 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, $16.8 million from Federal Demonstration, $13.5 million in state funds, and $54 million from TransNet.

The half-cent TransNet sales tax to fund local transportation projects, originally approved by voters in 1988, has been instrumental in expanding the county’s transportation system. In 2004, voters approved a 40-year extension of TransNet, which is expected to generate an additional $14 billion for public transit, highway and local street improvements.

The TransNet extension also included an $850 million Environmental Mitigation Program to protect, preserve and restore sensitive habitats near major transportation infrastructure improvement projects. The Environmental Mitigation Program has slated $80 million to support habitat conservation along the SR-76 corridor, and has purchased approximately 1,600 acres of land between I-5 and I-15 to preserve endangered species and their habitats.

“In addition to purchasing mitigation lands, several features are included in our project, such as the installation of wildlife directional fencing and animal under crossings keeping the wildlife population connected,” Fox said. “We've also been working collaboratively with the county of San Diego to support plans for the San Luis Rey River Park.”

Fox anticipates that the $201 million contract to complete SR-76 East, the third and final link between I-5 and I-15, will be awarded in August.

Actual construction efforts will begin toward the end of October and take 18 to 24 months to complete. SR-76 East extends the improvements from South Mission Road to just east of the SR- 76/I-15 Interchange.

Fox said the East segment will be constructed in two phases: Work on the SR-76/I-15 Interchange improvements from Old Highway 395 to just east of the interchange will begin this fall. The second phase, from South Mission Road to Old Highway 395, includes construction to widen the remaining roadway segment from two to four lanes and make improvements to the existing Park and Ride lot. That project phase is currently in design and will be in construction fall of 2013.

To save time and money, Caltrans is making use of the design sequencing process, which involves designing portions of the project while construction is under way on other portions.

Caltrans and the San Diego Association of Governments have been working with the cities of Escondido and San Marcos to relieve severe congestion on state Route 78, between Woodland Parkway and I-15. The first of three projects began last summer when crews began widening the connector on-ramp from I-15 to westbound SR 78. A fifth westbound lane was added between the end of the I-15 connector ramp and Nordahl Road, and a lane was added to the SR 78 Nordahl Road off-ramp. That project opened to traffic this spring.

The second project got under way in January to widen and replace the Nordahl Road Bridge to accommodate future SR 78 widening and express lanes. The new bridge is being raised 3 feet to increase height clearance, and a lane was added to provide additional capacity for turn pockets to SR 78 on-ramps.

Caltrans Project Manager David Stebbins, who is overseeing all three SR 78 improvement projects, said progress on the bridge project reached the halfway mark mid-July.

“We now have traffic on the new bridge while we tear down the remainder of the existing bridge,” Stebbins said. “We just opened up additional turn pockets at the on- and off-ramps, and they’re now in their final configuration.”

The fix will eliminate one of the worst freeway bottlenecks in North County.

“Traffic used to back up going down the freeway,” said Stebbins, who estimates that construction on the bridge project will be compete mid-October.

The third SR 78 project, adding eastbound auxiliary lanes between Woodland Parkway and Nordahl Road and between the Barham Drive on-ramp and the Nordahl Road off-ramp, is also under way. Depending on rain delays, Stebbins expects the project to wrap up next February.

Stebbins said the total cost of the three SR 78 projects is $41.1 million, $23.2 million of which is funded by TransNet.

Likely, these are the first of many improvements to SR 78. SANDAG; Caltrans; and the cities of Oceanside, Carlsbad, Vista, San Marcos and Escondido along with San Diego County have been exploring the feasibility of adding express or toll lanes. Caltrans will begin working on a project study report next year.

-James is an Encinitas-based freelance writer.

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