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An aerial view of downtown’s unbounded section of State Route 163.Killer Trees

The deadly Cabrillo Freeway median is finally getting a makeover.

The historic but deadly trees along the southernmost stretch of State Route 163 (Cabrillo Freeway) will become a forest this summer as the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) sets out to plant hundreds more trees—and add a timber safety barrier that’s being used in California for the first time.

The $2.8 million renovation has been in the works for 10 years, winning the approval of the Balboa Park Committee and the Save Our Heritage Organisation. It includes plans to restore a 2-mile stretch starting just north of Washington Street, and going south, to its 1950 look. At the same time, it adds safety measures to an area where a dozen people have died in car wrecks since 1997.

“We didn’t want to just slap up a concrete median that would provide a level of safety but destroy the beauty of the area,” says Caltrans spokesman Tom Nipper. “This is an exceptional approach to an exceptional area.”

Caltrans has had a longstanding problem with the stretch of highway because it doesn’t meet agency safety and design standards, which require at least 30 feet of clearance between the road and trees on level ground unless there’s a barrier. Maintenance workers, in fact, must close the highway on Sundays to cut the grass because there aren’t any safe places to pull off the road.
They haven’t been able to replant or improve the road except to clear away dying red gum trees.

Trees were involved in 23 of the 29 crashes from 1998 to 2002, killing eight people. Last year, there were four more fatal crashes, three of them involving a stand of trees in the median near the Richmond Street exit.

The new barrier and paved pullouts are expected to cut the number and severity of crashes and, at the same time, allow Caltrans to improve the landscaping and replace dead trees.

a chart of median accidents Landscape architect David Strickland dug up the original 1948 plans for the highway right-of-way and vows to plant the area just as it was when the highway opened in 1950. That includes planting dozens of live oak, sycamore and eucalyptus trees, as well as masses of iceplant and palms. The innovative solution also includes adding 540 trees to Balboa Park in the 21¼2-acre bald spot near the Laurel Street bridge.

“The park doesn’t have the money to do that,” says one Balboa Park Committee member. “We got our trees, and we’re happy with the plan.”

It’s the 1.7 miles of new median that pleases Caltrans District 11 director Pedro Orso-Delgado. The knee-high barrier, made of timber strapped with steel, has been used in national parks and on the East Coast, but never in California, he says. It’s designed to bounce cars back into the traffic lanes, rather than have them end up wrapped around trees, which typically is a worse accident.

“When we have a bad crash, I get a phone call at home, at work, wherever, and I have to go out,” Orso-Delgado says. “Many of those crashes shouldn’t have happened and hopefully will never hap-pen again.”

—Marty Graham
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