Caltrans Chief Predicts ‘Tremendous Traffic Snarl’ on I-5

Times Staff Writer

To build a new freeway on an old freeway, that’s the challenge.

But the hardest part in Caltrans’ 10-year project to widen the Santa Ana Freeway will be to keep construction crews working while hundreds of thousands of cars an hour thunder--and sometimes crawl--up and down Orange County’s major north-south artery.

Optimistic transportation officials Wednesday unveiled specifics of how they plan to keep traffic moving during the next decade while they widen the aging Interstate 5 from six to 12 lanes from its convergence with Interstate 405 at the southern edge of Irvine to Interstate 605 in the north.

In a variety of projects planned solely to help drivers navigate the freeway while work is going on, transportation agencies will be spending $2 million over the next 2 years on such things as free tow trucks, radio transmitters and changeable message signs.


“We anticipate there’s going to be a tremendous traffic snarl,” said Keith McKean, head of Caltrans in Orange County. “We hope the public will join us in a spirit of cooperation.”

The freeway was built when the region was primarily farms and scattered homes, McKean pointed out. He said some of the old on-ramps were built in a rush and are “kinda Mickey Mouse.”

Caltrans promises to keep at least three lanes open in each direction for “normal-hours traffic” during the $1-billion construction project. Late at night, lanes will close occasionally as overpasses are pulled down and rebuilt, but only one direction--northbound or southbound--will be shut down at a time, McKean said.

The county’s bus agency is also ready to help out, said James Reichert, executive director of the Orange County Transit District.

“The citizens have been hollering for changes,” Reichert said in his opening remarks. “Well, they’re going to get them. It’s going to be hectic for a while.”

The bus district hopes to woo 700 to 1,000 cars off the Santa Ana Freeway during peak hours through ride-sharing and van pools, Reichert said. Brian Pearson, OCTD director of development, talked about reducing fares on selected bus routes, but he had no specifics Wednesday on which routes, when or how big the cuts would be.

At some point, there may also be money available to companies and individuals as an incentive to car-pool, OCTD officials said.

Caltrans, however, has more ambitious plans to alleviate congestion during the long crush.

A new radio transmitter will go up next month at the juncture of the San Diego and Santa Ana freeways in southern Orange County that will have a signal range of up to 5 miles. Caltrans already has a transmitter at the Costa Mesa and Santa Ana freeways interchange so commuters can tune in 530 AM to hear the latest California Highway Patrol traffic reports during rush hour. The new transmitter will provide the same service to northbound commuters in the El Toro and Irvine areas. At off-peak times, the transmitters will broadcast information about upcoming construction work and closures.

So-called “Orange Angel” tow trucks will prowl the first section of the freeway-widening project (between the San Diego and Costa Mesa freeways) to haul disabled vehicles off the road, “basically because there won’t be any (freeway lane) shoulder left,” a Caltrans spokeswoman said. The towing will be free but details of how many trucks and when they begin operation have yet to be worked out.

In addition, Caltrans is posting six new changeable message signs along the construction corridor to warn motorists of looming disasters. These are scheduled to go up next year, a Caltrans spokesman said.

But the major incentive to keep as many motorists off the freeway as possible will be fear, McKean said.

When drivers begin encountering the jackhammers, slowdowns, dump trucks and bulldozers, they will quickly adapt and switch to surface streets or avoid trips altogether, he predicted.

“We’re going to have a nice 10-year Olympics,” he said, a reference to the steps taken 5 years ago when Los Angeles was host to the Olympics and various plans were adopted to prevent or clear up traffic congestion.

The first phase of the freeway-widening plan includes five major projects along the Santa Ana Freeway:

- Reconstruction of the Costa Mesa-Santa Ana freeways interchange. Completion scheduled for mid-1994. Work already under way.

- New Tustin Ranch Road overcrossing and interchange in Tustin. Completion scheduled for late summer of 1990. Work to start in winter of 1989.

- Reconstruction and widening of the Jamboree Road interchange and undercrossing (at what is now the Myford Road undercrossing) in Irvine. Scheduled for completion in late 1990. Work already under way.

- Realignment and widening of the Jeffrey Road interchange and overcrossing in Irvine. Completion scheduled for summer of 1990. Work to start this spring.

- Construction of a new overcrossing at Barranca Parkway. Completion scheduled for late spring in 1990. Work to start late this spring.

I-5 Widening Project 1989-1998 Construction deadlines for widening the Santa Ana Freeway along various sections of the 10-year project. 1 Between the 405 and 55. Start summer 1989 and end summer 1992. 2 Between 55 and 22. Start mid-1991 and end fall 1994. 3 Between 22 and 91. Start mid-1993 and end fall 1997. 4 Between 91 and 605. Start 1995 and end 1998.