Bucolic San Dieguito Faces Dim Forecast of Mounting Traffic Woes

Times Staff Writer

Residents of this burgeoning region have tried mightily to ignore the subdivisions and shopping centers springing up all across a still mostly rural landscape.

In Rancho Santa Fe, where growth is a dirty word, villagers have persistently fought county planners' attempts to widen quaint, rural streets into roads to service a growing population. "They keep proposing nice wide straight roads right though the center of the Ranch," one longtime Rancho Santa Fe resident said. "We keep bending them so they run around us, outside our boundaries, and raise hell in somebody else's backyard. And, we have the clout to keep them out."

But transportation planners say the locals won't be able to afford the luxury of their twisting roads much longer; nor will they--despite their calls for slow growth--be able to avoid the consequences of a crush of traffic that threatens to turn San Dieguito into a maze of clogged roadways and frustrated drivers.

Even under the most ambitious of road construction programs, traffic bottlenecks will be part of life in San Dieguito--an unincorporated area between Carlsbad and Vista on the north, and Del Mar and San Diego on the south--into the next century, even on roads, planned but not yet built, that are designed to help alleviate the crush.

That, at least, is the conclusion of a new county computer study of the area that projects traffic counts into the year 2005. The data upon which the traffic counts is based includes future housing tracts, shopping centers and industrial parks that already are approved by the county, or soon will be. The growth will not go away.

Some merchants complain that traffic congestion is already out of control. One businessman along Encinitas Boulevard said that, despite a roadside location on the busy highway, "the people won't turn in because they know that they'll never get back out of the parking lot into traffic. I've waited up to 20 minutes to get out with my delivery van."

He recently learned that the county Planning Commission approved zoning that will add 15,000 cars a day to the thickening stream.

Bill Hoeben, the senior civil engineer in charge of the county's regional transportation plan update, admits that he can't erase all of the red and orange lines (the colors for crowded roads) on his 2005 map no matter how he juggles the traffic.

The region's bucolic two-lane roads will be choked with traffic long before the next century arrives because of developments in La Jolla Valley and Ralphs Ranch to the east and the continuing growth within the San Dieguito communities of Leucadia, Olivenhain, Encinitas, Cardiff, Rancho Santa Fe and Solana Beach.

Red lines on Hoeben's charts indicate Level F, the worst road conditions. That means traffic greater than road capacity, slow travel because of congestion and periodic stoppages. Orange lines, Level E, indicate only slightly less disagreeable driving conditions, with traffic grinding to a halt at peak commuting hours.

If San Dieguito's present road system were asked to carry the traffic loads of the 21st Century, almost every highway and byway in the area would be colored red or orange.

In Hoeben's most ambitious road-building plan, one he expects to offer as part of a county general plan amendment next fall, many of the two-lane roads in San Dieguito would become four lanes; some would be expanded to six lanes, and new highways would be added.

Route 680, for instance, now meanders as a two-lane road named El Camino del Norte from Del Dios Highway near Rancho Santa Fe westward to a spot near Leucadia. By 2005, it would be four to six lanes wide from Interstate 5 to Interstate 15, but still would not be wide enough to carry the traffic that a through east-west highway would attract. Traffic estimates for Route 680 by the year 2005 average 43,000 cars a day. Color it red.

By 2005, Manchester Avenue on the north edge of the San Elijo Lagoon in Cardiff must be upgraded to a four-lane road with a median divider to handle the traffic between El Camino Real and I-5, in addition to the expected traffic from a planned second campus of MiraCosta Community College. Some traffic engineers are unsure that a road that size will handle the traffic headaches of the next 20 years.

One needed road improvement that county transportation planners predict will raise a political ruckus is a proposed widening of Paseo Delicias on the eastern edges of Rancho Santa Fe. The wealthy estate community has fought road-widening projects in or near its boundaries. This proposed improvement--from a two-lane country road to a four-lane highway east to Escondido--strikes a discordant note and threatens many of the trees along the community's main stem. Color Rancho Santa Fe livid.

Traffic engineers also are proposing widening of La Bajada, a very narrow two-lane road that fords a stream, to a four-lane "collector" road connecting Rancho Santa Fe with Encinitas Boulevard to the west.

The Rancho Santa Fe Assn. Roads and Traffic Committee has voted opposition to "any bridge over the Rancho Santa Fe Road/La Bajada dip" because construction of such a bridge, with four-lane Encinitas Boulevard leading to it, will inevitably mean a four-lane highway leading from the bridge along Rancho Santa Fe Boulevard/La Bajada and La Granada. Another urban intrusion into the Ranch boundaries.

Other sensitive recommendations in Hoeben's proposed San Dieguito road plan:

- Extension of Melrose Avenue in Vista south along Lone Jack Road as a four- and six-lane divided highway to link up with Route 680.

- Upgrading of Route 680 from Del Dios Highway east to the San Diego city limits from a four-lane to a six-lane divided highway.

- Widening of Manchester Avenue from San Elijo Avenue east to Interstate 5 from a two-lane to a four-lane road.

- Addition of a four-lane road linking San Dieguito Road (Route 728) with Via de la Valle on a route between Fairbanks Country Club and Whispering Palms.

- Removal of a plan to extend Santa Fe Drive west over the Santa Fe railroad tracks to intersect with Old Highway 101 in Encinitas.

- Upgrading of Olivenhain Road from Rancho Santa Fe Road to El Camino Real to a six-lane divided highway.

- Widening of El Camino Real along its entire length to a six-lane divided highway.

San Dieguito Road--now a wide two lanes east of Del Mar, going to Fairbanks Ranch before it runs out of pavement--will become Route 728, a four-lane divided highway with an interchange at I-5 on the west and a connection with Route 680 on the east.

Route 728 is one of the few highways on the proposed 2005 road plan that Hoeben can color baby blue--Level A. Although 728 will carry 17,000 to 23,000 cars a day on some of its segments, drivers will find the going easy and uncongested, Hoeben predicted, with speed limits and terrain the only hindrances.

However, Route 728's easy-driving status is in jeopardy if the City of San Diego does not build two major highways from I-5 to I-15 to siphon off 50,000 to 60,000 east-west drivers onto Black Mountain Road or Carmel Valley Road.

(One regional transportation planner pointed out that county road plans tend to place new major road construction within city limits, where the cities must find the construction funds. Cities, however, tend to place their major road arteries outside city limits, where county transportation officials must find the funds.)

At present, and for the foreseeable future, neither cities nor counties have funds to build new roads. A recent San Diego Assn. of Governments (Sandag) study indicates that the funding problem will get worse. By 2005, the Sandag study estimates, San Diego cities and county government will fall short of needed road funds to the tune of $1.4 billion.

Both city and county road planners have been "finding" the money for new roads by requiring landowners along the proposed highways to pay for road construction in order to obtain development permits.

But County Public Works Director R. J. Massman is concerned about two trends that have curtailed the effectiveness of the privately financed road building program. County supervisors have allowed some developers with land along the route of 680 and other future highways to build less roadway than the county's transportation plan calls for. Developers along Route 680 are permitted to build only two lanes of what is scheduled to be a four-lane divided highway at its narrowest point.

"Where are we going to get the money to widen these roads?" Massman asks.

Hoeben's proposed San Dieguito transportation plan calls for rescinding the lower road building requirement and ordering developers to build future roads through their properties to the full width.

Massman also is concerned over the county Planning Commission's and Board of Supervisors' actions increasing the density possibilities of undeveloped property in San Dieguito. The increased population allowed by these decisions, he said, threatens road capacities and provides no additional road funds to ease the congestion.

Zoning changes in the area of Encinitas Boulevard pose a congestion problem that even money can't resolve, he said. The road--the widest of San Dieguito's east-west arteries--cannot be widened enough to provide the capacity needed by the increases in population and traffic without razing businesses and houses along its path.

Hoeben voiced another fear that transportation planners at all levels face: What if the lines on the 2005 road plan do not become reality? What if there are gaps in major arteries? Who will pay?

He has an answer that few county residents would care to hear.

"When the situation gets bad enough, and it will some day, then the people will get behind a financing plan to build the roads that are needed," he said. "Until then, everybody toughs it out."

That is how California's freeways were built, Hoeben said. In the mid '50s, drivers got fed up with spending all day on crowded state highways to travel shorter and shorter distances. They forced the Legislature to vote the funds needed for a freeway system, he said.

It took 20 years to build a freeway system that was needed before it was started, he warned. "When you consider that, maybe we should get started now."

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