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In a Jam

SAN DIEGO COUNTY'S congested north-south freeways could provide ample fodder for a stand-up comedy act. Dark comedy. While Orange County officials in the early 1990s launched an extensive program of widening freeways and building carpool lanes to encourage motorists to double up, San Diego allowed huge residential and commercial developments to be constructed on the sides of Interstates 5 and 15, limiting the feasibility of future widening.

And when San Diego finally did begin to build carpool lanes, it was hardly the expansive 239-mile network of diamond lanes that’s worked wonders for Orange County. First came a reversible, concrete-walled travesty along Interstate 15 that measures just 8 miles and is used primarily by solo motorists who pay “tolls” of up to $6, depending on how heavily the freeway is congested. And then it’s never open on Saturdays and Sundays, despite increasing gridlock from weekend tourist traffic.

Next came a 5-mile, northbound-only carpool patch at the Interstate 5/805 merge with no in-and-out privileges, causing plenty of near-misses by drivers who want to coast through the merge—only to find they’re trapped and can’t get out until they’ve passed the Via de la Valle exit.

As a result, 30-mile commutes from Escondido to downtown San Diego can take up to two hours, while southbound Interstate 5 is a parking lot each weekday morning—and practically all day Saturday—from Oceanside well past Del Mar.

“The biggest problem is that they [regional traffic planners] are so far behind the curve,” says Thomas C. Belgard, who has spent as much as an hour and 40 minutes driving the 33 miles from his home in Escondido to MCRD. “They should be much more creative. Politically, you need someone who is a visionary, and we just don’t have that.”

One thing critics have continuously harped on is the lack of a centralized regional planning authority, which Orange County and other areas have. But that’s going to change when Senate Bill 1703 becomes law this month. The new law is designed to streamline transportation decisions by creating a new consolidated regional agency. This agency will oversee all transportation planning, money allocation and project development and construction, as it takes over the responsibilities and roles of the San Diego Association of Governments and many of the transit functions of the San Diego Metropolitan and North County Transit Development Boards.

“It’s definitely a step in the right direction, because from the policy standpoint, it’s one-stop shopping,” says SANDAG communications director Garry Bonelli. “You can come to one agency now, whereas in the past you had three independent agencies, and sometimes that made things more cumbersome.”

Already, these three entities have jointly developed a far-reaching transportation plan, Mobility 2030, designed to accommodate and ease traffic flow in San Diego over the next three decades. While the focus is on public transportation, several highway and freeway improvements also are on the table, including more carpool lanes, better interchanges and connecting ramps, plus connector routes between the major freeways.

“We have very healthy carpool lanes [in the plan] that run the entire length of Interstate 5 from the Orange County line into downtown, and other high-occupancy lanes running the length of Interstate 15,” Bonelli says. “We’re giving people a choice—if you can get one other person in your car, you can get there a lot faster.”

But don’t expect the freeways to become unclogged soon —if ever—warns Mike McNally, a professor of civil engineering with the University of California, Irvine, and a member of the school’s Institute of Transportation Studies. Even if San Diego had built more carpool lanes and widened key roadways a lot earlier, there still would be trouble, he says.

“San Diego is growing faster than Orange County, and San Diego is a very conventional—in the old sense of the word—city, built at a high density with narrow blocks located in a very constrained geographical area,” McNally says. “You’ve got water on one side and very steep mountains on the other.

“Sure, freeway planning may not have led to roads as good as the modified or reconditioned ones in Orange County—you get splits like the 5-805 merge, with a lot of lane drops. But overall, these are minor problems compared to the way San Diego is developed and built out.”
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