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Way to Go, Say Drivers Tired of Traffic Mess : Transportation: Newport Coast Drive, which opens Friday, will offer relief to commuters on crowded Coast Highway through Corona del Mar.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like most other residents along Orange County’s southern coast, Ginny and Peter Ueberroth dread the rush-hour crunch of cars in Corona del Mar.

When the couple venture north from their Laguna Beach home, they often encounter the Manhattan-like congestion that plagues a milelong stretch of Coast Highway in the heart of Corona del Mar’s picturesque business district.

But now the former Olympics czar and his wife--along with scads of residents in Laguna Beach and other coastal communities--see relief in the hills.

This Friday, a new road that snakes up into the rolling coastal terrain south of Corona del Mar will be open, providing a bypass for hordes of motorists eager to skirt the congested seaside hamlet.

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Named Newport Coast Drive, the $67-million thoroughfare promises to not only make it easier for South Coast residents to reach destinations such as John Wayne Airport, UC Irvine and the Irvine Business Complex, but also reduce by one-third the number of cars plying Coast Highway through Corona del Mar.

“It should be nice,” said Ginny Ueberroth, noting that while she scrupulously avoids Corona del Mar during rush hour, her husband must often fight the traffic to catch a plane. “I think most people are looking forward to it opening, especially the ones who have to head up that way as part of their daily commute.”

Among the biggest boosters of the new road, which originally was called Pelican Hill Road, are merchants along Coast Highway in Corona del Mar.

Although it might seem odd for these business people to cheer a thoroughfare that will essentially siphon potential customers away from their shops, the Corona del Mar merchants say the unbearably heavy traffic on Coast Highway has only hurt their bottom line.

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They contend that the commuter congestion prompts many customers to steer clear of the area. But with much of the rush-hour traffic now expected to swing onto Newport Coast Drive, merchants hope their business district will become a thriving commercial destination once again.

“Right now the traffic is so heavy people are afraid to pull off and park and shop at the stores,” said Royal S. Radtke, Corona del Mar Chamber of Commerce president. “So it’s good news for us. What it’s basically going to do is give our merchants some relief.”

Orange County Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, who pushed hard for construction of Newport Coast Drive, said he cannot recall a new road that has been so widely embraced.

“There’s been none of the anger that you sometimes find when you get into these kinds of projects,” Riley said. “It’s really kind of surprising when you have something that’s just so overwhelmingly received.”

Not everyone, however, is gleeful.

Laguna Beach Councilman Robert F. Gentry said he is thinking about boycotting Newport Coast Drive, even though it would greatly speed his daily trip to UC Irvine, where he is associate dean of students.

Gentry’s problem is not so much with the road as with what is behind its construction--the development industry. The Irvine Co. planned and built the thoroughfare to create access to its sprawling Newport Coast development, an ultra-tony mix of 2,600 homes and apartments, two golf courses and a pair of hotels.

“I have some very mixed feelings about the road and whether to use it,” Gentry said. “If it was there really to relieve traffic congestion, I would be there at the ribbon cutting, I would be celebrating. But I know that’s not why the road was built. It was built to accommodate development.”

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The 6-mile thoroughfare, which begins as six lanes at Coast Highway before shrinking to four at San Joaquin Hills Road and swinging over to link up with MacArthur Boulevard in the north, had a lot to do with the development getting through the regulatory process in the first place, some officials say.

Conceived in the mid-1960s as a sprawling community of 21,500 dwellings, Newport Coast trudged through a gauntlet of lawsuits and regulatory hurdles before it was finally accepted by lawmakers and environmentalists in 1987. Today, the 9,000-acre project features about one-tenth the housing units originally planned and 7,000 acres set aside as open space.

Although critics such as Gentry contend that the road will provide only short-term benefits that will be overwhelmed as homes are built, Irvine Co. officials say Newport Coast Drive will handle traffic far in excess of that ultimately generated by the development’s homes, hotels and commercial projects.

“The real benefit of this is for the people who live in South County--Dana Point, Laguna Beach and other cities,” said Dawn McCormick, an Irvine Co. spokeswoman. “This road will be a major commuting benefit for them.”

McCormick also said the road, which is being financed by an assessment district that will tax homeowners in the development, was designed to fit in as sensitively as possible with the topography of the rolling coastal hills.

Stretching down the spine of the development, the road offers motorists spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and broad, backcountry canyons as well as the flat expanses of building pads being readied for construction of homes.

Heading north from the Coast Highway, the thoroughfare swoops up the hills at a steep, 6% grade before leveling out a bit.

“It will be a nice, new roadway that people should actually find quite attractive,” said Steven M. Hogan, Orange County’s transportation division manager. “And I think those going to points north like the airport and Santa Ana and the IBC will find Newport Coast Drive to be a more efficient way to get there.”

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A New Road for the Coast

Newport Coast Drive (formerly Pelican Hill Road) will open Friday, offering commuters a way to bypass traffic-choked Corona del Mar and reach John Wayne Airport, the Irvine Business Complex, UC Irvine and other points north.

Source: Irvine Co.


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