Caltrans Backs I-5 Plan; Club Urges Added Freeways : Funds for 9-Mile Widening Sought

Times Staff Writer

Reveling in news that Caltrans has endorsed a plan to double the lanes of a nine-mile stretch of the Santa Ana Freeway, the Orange County Transportation Commission on Monday fired off letters urging the state to put its checkbook where its mouth is.

Getting the approval for the $118-million Interstate 5 project was crucial, but without full funding, the extra lanes won't be built, said Stan Oftelie, executive director of the commission. The state has set aside $57.6 million for the project.

"We're real excited," Oftelie said. Comparing the news from Caltrans to the Angels' struggle for the pennant, he added: "We're only in the playoffs. We're not in the World Series yet."

The California Department of Transportation notified county transportation officials Friday of its recommendation to widen the Santa Ana Freeway from its current six lanes to 12 along a nine-mile section from the Costa Mesa Freeway to where it joins the San Diego Freeway in Irvine.

Backing Was Crucial

One of the lanes in each direction will be set aside for buses and car pools. Additional "auxiliary lanes"--on-ramps, off-ramps and merging lanes--also will be added under the design plan.

Caltrans' recommendation to add the six lanes--three in each direction--was crucial to alleviating the congested freeway's traffic woes, county officials said. Other alternatives were outlined in an environmental study--including widening the freeway by only one lane in each direction--but Caltrans opted for the most expansive scheme, county officials said.

Further, the widest design sets a standard for the size and construction required to improve the remainder of the heavily traveled Santa Ana Freeway and provides much-needed momentum to the project, they said.

The Caltrans recommendation will be forwarded to the California Transportation Commission, which will make the final decision on the widening design and certify the environmental study next month. The state commission also controls the purse strings on state and federal highway money through its State Transportation Improvement Program, a five-year plan outlining which projects merit funding. The program, which is updated annually, has earmarked $57.6 million for the Santa Ana Freeway project, based on original cost estimates.

Orange County transportation commissioners on Monday sent letters to Gov. George Deukmejian and California Transportation Commission Chairman Joe Levy asking for full funding of the project.

"We agree with Caltrans Director Leo Trombatore, who has called this important roadway the backbone of our freeway system and a critical link between Los Angeles and Mexico. We believe the widening of the Santa Ana Freeway is the most important transportation project in Orange County and a vital link in preserving a strong, vibrant economy in our state," the letters said.

'Somebody Else Loses'

Oftelie acknowledged that it could be difficult to obtain $60 million more for the widening plan.

"It's a lot of money. Not often do you go to the state and say, 'double the money.' It will be a hard decision for them," he said. Getting $60 million from the state means "somebody else loses it, someplace," he said.

While pleased with Caltrans' recommendation, he said, "we're not going to uncork the champagne until we know who pays for the bottle."

On the positive side, according to a commission analysis of the funding request, Trombatore has indicated his preliminary support for the extra funding. At least two members of the California Transportation Commission, including Orange County Supervisor Bruce Nestande, also have expressed initial support for the increase, the report says.

But on the negative side, such a funding increase is unprecedented, and state commissioners could fear it will "open the floodgates" for other counties seeking additional money, the report says.

The widening of the stretch of the Santa Ana Freeway through Tustin and Irvine will be the first and southernmost of four expansion projects along the route through Orange County, said Ron Cole, the county commission's director of planning and programming. The remaining expansion stages follow I-5 north, between the Costa Mesa (55) and Garden Grove (22) freeways, then north to the Riverside (91) Freeway, and finally north to the San Gabriel River (605) Freeway at the Los Angeles County line, he said.

Land Largely Vacant

Traffic in the segment between the 55 and 22 freeways is currently the most congested, Cole said. But widening the southernmost segment can be accomplished most quickly because the land alongside the freeway is largely vacant, Cole said. The only occupied property is a mobile home park in Tustin, he said.

Construction would take about four years and could begin in late 1989, he said.

The cost of acquiring land alongside the freeway is estimated at $34 million of the $118 million, he said.

Selection of the 12-lane design with bus lanes opens up the possibility that the Orange County Transit District could help foot some of the cost of the second stage of freeway expansion, Cole said. OCTD has plans to construct lanes restricted to bus and car pool traffic on the Santa Ana Freeway between the 55 and 22 freeways, he said.

The county Transportation Commission has been trying to win support for expansion of the clogged freeway since 1981, when "we couldn't even get Caltrans to agree it needed widening," Cole said. The state began taking a second look at the Santa Ana Freeway congestion about two years ago, he said.

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