COSTA MESA : Stores Are Counting on Improvements

The headaches haven't stopped on Newport Boulevard, where construction to extend the Costa Mesa Freeway to 19th Street has wreaked havoc on drivers and merchants alike.

A three-month repaving of the street that will start early this month will add to the swirl of dust and traffic jams in the area. But when the heavy equipment moves on and the freeway opens at the end of the year, the city predicts there will be smooth sailing for most of the traffic headed to Newport Beach.

"I really see Newport Boulevard running a lot smoother," said Bill Morris, director of the city public services department, which oversees streets. "The cars will have a lot fewer signals than before to 19th Street, and with proper signalization, I think it will be a lot smoother."

That will be good news for business owners along Newport Boulevard, who, in addition to slower sales because of the recession, have had to suffer the construction that they say has kept customers from their doors.

For the past year, the Costa Mesa Freeway Extension Project has caused traffic to back up after workers closed north- and southbound lanes. Merchants last summer, citing the effects of a slow economy and the construction, pleaded for and received a delay in the plans for beginning the street repaving until after the end of the Christmas season.

The Pavement Rehabilitation Project, which begins Jan. 13 and is to be completed in March, will repave Newport Boulevard from 19th to 16th streets, state Department of Transportation resident engineer Wally Carroll said. At various times, one lane in either direction will be closed, but the businesses have been assured that lanes will be open in both directions on the weekends.

Construction of the Costa Mesa Freeway extension is 30 days ahead of schedule, Carroll said, which moves the completion date to the end of this year. The bridges at Victoria and 22nd streets, which are partially open now, will be completed in about 30 days, he said.

Merchants will meet with Caltrans engineers as well as city representatives before then to discuss details of the continuing construction and how the merchants may be affected. In addition, engineers from the city and Caltrans will meet to figure out ways to time traffic signals along Newport Boulevard to keep the traffic moving, Morris said.

"People don't realize that before the construction started, Newport Boulevard was handling 80,000 vehicles a day, and that is significant for a surface street," he said.

Although much of the traffic is expected to exit the freeway before it reaches 19th Street, developers of the Triangle Square retail center, which is scheduled to open in May, are already looking to the freeway as a means to turn the center into a regional attraction.

Longtime merchants, despite the hardship caused by the construction, also see the upheaval as a step leading to a long-term improvement to the area that could have a positive effect on their businesses.

"If the merchants down here can hang on in the next 50 days, the freeway will open soon, and it's going to make it easier to get here," said Randy Garell, president of the Costa Mesa Downtown Merchants Assn. "We're going to have a real nice downtown area. The trick is surviving the economy and surviving the construction."

Boom Expected The Costa Mesa Freeway project will end at Triangle Square, a new retail center in Costa Mesa. Retailers along the route say that the project has temporarily hurt business but that they expect a boom after construction ends as the improved road brings more traffic to the shopping area.

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