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The Spirit of California 76 : Construction Will Ease Traffic Flow Along Historic Route

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

For probably as long as 10,000 years, a winding path across Oceanside has been traveled in succession by Indians, Spaniards, early American settlers, and today’s harried drivers.

They have used every kind of conveyance from horse-drawn buggies to Winnebagos.

Indians went back and forth searching for food, a warmer climate and companionship. Later, the bumpy route led people to the Mission San Luis Rey, and still later, it was used for lazy Sunday drives to gaze at the wildflowers that cover the hills.

Today, 41,000 motorists a day curse their way along the maddening 17-mile stretch of that ancient route that is now known as California 76. It is the link between Interstate 5 along the congested coast and Interstate 15 in the rural east.

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After years of flaring tempers, stop-and-go driving, conspiratorial red lights and perpetual fender-benders, narrow California 76 appears on the verge of becoming an expressway with a heady 55 m.p.h. speed limit.

In the past two weeks, Congress has approved critically needed funding for part of the $210-million project. Just as significantly, an environmental lawsuit that threatened to delay construction shows signs of being settled without a court fight.

This is a relief for Oceanside, which has yearned since the 1950s to see the old route improved to serve both the present and the future. Nearly 60,000 vehicle trips a day are predicted by the year 2005.

“There isn’t a person in the community opposed to the project,” Deputy City Manager Dana Whitson said. “This is one of those universally supported projects.”

Even the Sierra Club, which joined the Audubon Society to sue because the project would destroy habitat for the endangered least Bell’s vireo, is cautiously celebrating the expressway.

“It seems to me this is one of those rare cases where the city and the people will get their road and adequate mitigation” to offset environmental damage, local Sierra Club spokeswoman Joan Jackson said.

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Unless some obstacle arises, by late next year or early 1993, crews will begin building the expressway’s first stage. It will be a nearly 3-mile link bypassing the western part of California 76 (known as Mission Avenue) from I-5 to Foussat Road.

Building the bypass will avoid having to displace many businesses along the existing roadway. “You don’t want a freeway going through the heart of the city,” said Gary Klein, the California Department of Transportation’s project manager.

Construction of easterly segments from Foussat Road to I-15 are scheduled to be undertaken between 1993 and 2007.

When the project is finished, the current two- and four-lane route will be four lanes with enough right of way for six lanes, if area housing and traffic growth require it.

According to Caltrans, the first-stage bypass will cost at least $40 million and the other stages $170 million. Funding comes from the federal highway fund and San Diego County’s half-cent sales tax for transportation projects.

The recent signs of progress have been a long time coming for California 76, a roadway with a long and rich history.

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“It’s been an easy, practical way to move back and forth, the archeological community believes, for perhaps 10,000 years,” Tim Vasquez, local environmental branch chief for Caltrans, said.

When Vasquez pauses to envision the past, he sees early Indians traversing the path, gathering food from the ocean and the foothills, pausing to socialize at the Indian villages along the way.

He pictures the sheep and cattle of Father Junipero Serra’s Mission San Luis Rey, founded in 1798, grazing on the native growth that surrounded the road.

And he talks about the last 100 years, when people would travel by horse, wagon or car from the coast to inland places, like Lake Elsinore to the north or Lake Henshaw farther east, past Pauma Valley.

California 76, which passes Fallbrook and Bonsall, was once abundant with agriculture, brush-covered hillsides and wildflowers. Today it reflects the fast growth and odd juxtapositions of land-uses in North County.

The rural easterly part has fences and ranchettes, yellow-topped trees and signs offering to sell passers-by olives, dates and homemade jams and candies.

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Pretty soon, a westbound motorist realizes that urbanization is fast approaching.

There are liquor stores, real estate offices and places to buy Lotto tickets. The entry to Oceanside features earth-moving equipment, model homes and a looming horizon of Spanish tile rooftops that seem to melt into one another, like some mesmerizing drawing by Escher.

A sign says “Oceanside, population 76,000,” but those times are long gone. The city is nearly 134,000 people, about one-third of whom live in the San Luis Rey Valley that’s pierced by California 76.

More people are on the way, and an environmental impact report for the expressway says 10,000 new homes have been approved in the valley. That’s in addition to the dwellings that have sprung up since World War II, when the building of Camp Pendleton brought a large work force and returning Marines to Oceanside.

Caltrans took over California 76 from the county in 1933 and, since the 1950s, Oceanside has pined to widen and improve the thoroughfare. There hasn’t been much luck. Money has gone to competing transportation projects elsewhere, and sometimes, the political winds have blown against the expressway.

Whitson, who has worked on the project for 10 years, recalled how it was virtually dead when Jerry Brown was governor in 1974-82. A hallmark of his Administration was shifting highway funds for mass transit projects.

“When I was introduced to the project, it wasn’t a project,” Whitson said. “There wasn’t dime one. It had been blacklisted by the Brown Administration. It was nowhere.”

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By the time a more traditional political philosophy returned to California, the expressway was running into environmental problems. It was learned that the bypass project would ruin 5.1 acres of habitat for the least Bell’s vireo, a small migratory songbird.

In December, 1989, the California Coastal Commission approved an environmental mitigation plan for the project after Caltrans promised a 6.6-acre replacement habitat.

However, the Sierra Club and Audubon Society quickly filed suit against the commission and Caltrans, insisting the 6.6 acres weren’t enough.

While that lawsuit lingered in San Diego Superior Court, there was an important development. Early this month, largely through the efforts of Rep. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside), Congress earmarked $14.4 million for the bypass project.

Those federal funds allowed other funding to fall into place. “It was sort of a linchpin,” Whitson said.

With the expressway about to become real, the litigation remains the final stumbling block. So Oceanside officials decided to try to broker a peace, even though the city isn’t named in the lawsuit.

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Councilwoman Nancy York, whose car was rear-ended on Mission Avenue earlier this year, said, “What we hope to do is get the two sides to agree on a settlement.”

She believes more than 6.6 acres of habitat should be provided to satisfy environmental groups and end the litigation.

“We ought to preserve habitat for the least Bell’s vireo a little more generously than has been done,” she said. “I’m looking at the practicality of protecting the bird and getting our expressway built.”

The city’s overture seems to be helping.

The Sierra Club wants 21 acres purchased for a habitat, fencing to keep vehicles away, and for the habitat to be under jurisdiction of the county parks system. The proposed new habitat is off California 76, near I-15.

If those conditions are met, “we will settle the suit,” Jackson, the Sierra Club’s local spokeswoman, said.

“We’ve spent a great deal of time trying to find a site with suitable habitat on it,” she said.

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Although no settlement has been reached yet, all parties express optimism and confidence about the outcome.

Caltrans’ Vasquez said, “We believe we are very close to finding something we can both agree to.”

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