California's drought has turned the construction of car-pool lanes on the Orange Freeway into the rarest of government projects: under budget and ahead of schedule.
When the state Department of Transportation began construction in spring, 1990, the lanes were scheduled to open in April, 1993, at a cost of $40 million. But the lanes, which stretch in each direction between Lambert Road in Brea and the Santa Ana Freeway, now may open this May at a cost of $25 million. The project is being funded by Measure M tax revenue.
Every day of rain adds two or three days to the construction schedule, according to Caltrans spokesman Albert Miranda. It has not rained very often during the project's construction.
Miranda added that the recent rains are the only thing that threaten the project's speedy conclusion.
He said most sections of the Orange Freeway have a wide center median, which made work easier than on similar projects, such as on the Santa Ana Freeway where private property alongside the freeway had to be purchased and demolished to accommodate lanes.
Long stretches of the project are already completed between the Riverside and Santa Ana freeways. But north of those areas, construction continues.
Concrete and wooden barriers line the freeway's medians and right shoulders as workers operate heavy machinery and drivers whiz by.
Joe El-Harake, the project's coordinator, said that about 24,000 cars are expected to use the Orange Freeway car-pool lanes each day.
Miranda said a 1988 survey showed that 210,000 vehicles use the Orange Freeway daily and that by 2000, the daily total would increase to 280,000 vehicles.
When the new lanes open, motorists will be able to drive from Brea to South County and back using almost exclusively car-pool lanes on the Orange, Costa Mesa and San Diego freeways, according to Miranda.
The only portion where a car-pool lane would not be available would be on the stretch of Santa Ana Freeway between the Orange and Costa Mesa freeways.