Price of Progress : Santa Ana Freeway Widening Bedevils Nearby Homeowners With Clouds of Dust, Noise; 'There Is No Way to Keep Anything Clean,' One Says


Armed with a garden hose, Renate Foote was tackling what has become almost a daily ritual. But instead of aiming the spray at some shrubs or flowers, Foote was giving her mobile home a bath.

No wonder. Any workday of the week, the tidy little home is engulfed by clouds of dust stirred up by bulldozers and other earth-moving equipment busily carving up the terrain a few dozen feet from Foote's front door to widen the car-clogged Santa Ana Freeway.

"Just look at this dust! It's terrible!" Foote hollered over the roar of the freeway one recent afternoon. "You wash your car today and it's dirty tomorrow. The roofs, the house, it all gets covered."

It is a decidedly Southern California dilemma. While any seasoned commuter welcomes the long-overdue effort to widen Interstate 5 up the spine of Orange County, residents along the traffic-choked corridor are left to deal with the inconveniences of living side by side with a giant construction project.

"This has been hell, constant hell," said Leonard Coleman, a Marine Corps sergeant who shares a Tustin apartment overlooking the widening project with his wife, Michele, and two young children. "There is no way to keep anything clean. . . ."

Officials with the California Transportation Department, which is overseeing the $180-million widening project, sympathize with the plight of such residents and say they're trying hard to ease the impact, doing everything from adjusting the hours of work crews to ensuring that more water trucks are on hand to keep down the dust.

But some hardships are unavoidable. They are the price of progress as Orange County tries to renovate a 1950s-era freeway that had been hopelessly overburdened with traffic for decades, Caltrans officials maintain.

"These are not the Autopias at Disneyland," said Albert Miranda, an Orange County spokesman for Caltrans. "This is the real world. We cannot shut down the system and rebuild it overnight. We have to do it while we try to keep people moving in Orange County."

Unfortunately, the mess promises to get worse before it gets better. The effort to widen the Santa Ana Freeway between the Costa Mesa Freeway and the El Toro Y, which is formed by the confluence of the Santa Ana and San Diego freeways, is merely the first flush of construction work along the corridor.

Early next year, work begins in earnest north of the Costa Mesa Freeway, pushing into crowded neighborhoods in Santa Ana and affecting vastly more homes than it has during the current phase to the south. During the coming decade, bridges will be torn down and the road will be widened to 12 lanes from its existing six as far north as the Riverside Freeway. Officials hope to eventually widen the freeway all the way to the San Gabriel River Freeway in Los Angeles County.

With all that work looming, Caltrans officials say they plan to redouble their efforts to assuage the concerns of residents up and down the busy route, which is traversed by about 225,000 vehicles a day, 25% more than it is designed to handle.

The agency has already unveiled a special AM radio station that broadcasts updated traffic reports along I-5, introduced a special free towing service for stranded motorists, littered the neighborhoods straddling the corridor with information updates and provided a telephone hot line (768-4CAL) for residents' complaints, Miranda said.

"We can try to accommodate the needs of residents as best we can," he said. "We can try to expedite work that creates problems. We can water down dusty areas. But then you have to draw the line. This work is going to go on for several more years and people have to be tolerant."

But some homeowners say their tolerance can stretch only so far. In the Irvine neighborhood of Northwood, residents have flooded City Hall with complaints about freeway ramps being shut down without warning, nearby roads being reduced to a single lane and other construction-related troubles that have snarled traffic.

"With the off-ramps, it's a case of sometimes they're open, sometimes they're closed," said Jerry Gaston, a computer programmer who lives near the freeway in Irvine. "All you can do is figure the best way around. It's pretty bad. I'm eager to see it finished."

Irvine homeowners also have complained about the throbbing, late-night noise of pile-driving equipment. During the summer, the pile driving was handled between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. to avoid busy times on the freeway, according to Irvine City Manager Paul O. Brady Jr.

But after the city complained to Caltrans, the noisy work was halted promptly at 1 a.m. and shifted more to weekend nights, he said.

"People are going to have to be patient," Brady said. "All this construction work is not going to go away for some time."

While many of the homes lining the freeway in Irvine are shielded from the project by thick block walls, residents along stretches of highway in Tustin haven't been nearly as lucky.

Chuck and Diane Patterson once had a respectable view of a row of mobile homes across the street. Two years ago the units were uprooted. Then the state took down the block wall that helped buffer the noise. Now the couple have a nice view of 5 p.m. traffic jams and banana-colored tractors the size of their home.

"It wasn't at all bad before," Diane Patterson said. "We live on the freeway now."

"There were trees and roses over there before," her husband mused, pointing across the street to where a wide gash has replaced the row of mobile homes.

"But we're good sports," she added.

Businesses, of course, have also been affected by the snarled traffic, and nearby Tustin High School has been hit by a spat of problems stemming from the construction work.

Last spring, the school lost 75 of its 300 parking spaces in the student lot. Work crews also broke water mains a couple of times, turning the dust into gooey mud that teachers named Lake Lantz after the school's maintenance manager, Assistant Principal Brad Lantz.

Just up the road at the Orange Garden Apartments, a 160-unit complex overlooking the construction work, the managers were forced recently to relocate one family to another apartment because the daughter was troubled by allergies apparently caused by dust kicked up during construction.

Michele Coleman and her family have stuck it out in their apartment with a front-row view, but she sometimes wonders why.

"You can't open up the windows anymore," said Coleman, hugging her 4-month-old daughter, Kalin, as she gazed at the gravelly path hugging the apartment complex. "If you open your balcony door, which is your only real source of air, your furniture is ruined. You can't dust enough."

Coleman also complained that she has had to wait upwards of a half hour to get out of the complex while some earth-moving equipment finished grading the dusty road that is the only access to the outside world.

Other residents griped about getting 5 a.m. wake-up calls, courtesy of construction crews unloading heavy equipment. At that hour, the ding-ding-ding of a tractor's back-up bell can drive even the most stoic person batty, they say.

While some residents along the route have dumped their homes on the real estate market in an effort to escape the cacophony of problems caused by the construction work, most feel such forays would probably prove futile.

"There's a lot of people who would like to sell, but who can sell in this mess," Foote groused. "My daughter, she doesn't want to come in here anymore, her car gets so dirty. . . . We've been in this mess since May. I'm beginning to think it will never end."

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