If you plan to begin your holiday shopping today, take along plenty of patience and expect lots of company.
Unemployment is down, inflation is in check and, according to government studies, Americans have more disposable income to spend on gifts this holiday season. What does all of this mean for Orange County residents?
It means that on the day after Thanksgiving, traditionally touted as the year's biggest shopping day, local malls will be brimming with shoppers, while the parking lots and the roads leading to them will be choked with cars. Transportation officials said they expect twice the normal weekday traffic today on streets near the county's major malls.
After inching along with other cars to get to a shopping center, be prepared to queue up in long lines to get into the parking lot. Once you are in, expect to spend even more time hunting for a space.
"It's not going to be pretty," said David Sorge, Costa Mesa operations engineer. "Our advice is to take the bus or car-pool, but there really is no easy way to get around it. At this time of year, parking spaces are at a premium at South Coast Plaza."
In fact, there probably will not be any changes from last year's massive holiday traffic jams on San Diego Freeway off-ramps caused by shoppers heading to South Coast Plaza. Caltrans had hoped that a South Coast Drive off-ramp on the northbound side of the freeway would be open by now to relieve traffic congestion on the Bristol Street exit.
However, Caltrans officials said the ramp, which should have been completed in July, will not open until January. Meanwhile, Sorge warned of delays on all exit ramps leading to South Coast Plaza and on the streets surrounding the mall.
South Coast Plaza spokeswoman Suzanne Biallot said the mall will offer three valet parking stations for shoppers who do not want to battle for one of the 10,804 parking spaces at the mall. For those who do not mind walking a few blocks, there is also parking available east of Bristol Street and on Bear Street by Crystal Court.
Traffic problems will be unavoidable throughout the county, said Caltrans spokeswoman Marina Duran-Rojas.
"We don't plan any freeway closures due to construction during the holidays," Duran-Rojas said. "We're encouraging drivers to ride-share and take alternative routes to the malls. We know it's hard to stay away from (freeway) construction areas when they're everywhere."
Some of the trouble spots that drivers should look out for and avoid if possible include:
* The "Orange Crush," the junction of the Santa Ana, Orange and Garden Grove freeways.
* The Main Street off-ramp at the Santa Ana Freeway, if traveling to MainPlace/Santa Ana mall. Caltrans suggests using the eastbound Garden Grove Freeway and exiting at Main Street instead. Or, if southbound on the Santa Ana Freeway, exit at Broadway and cross the bridge to the mall.
* El Toro Road in front of the Laguna Hills Mall.
* The Edinger Avenue and Beach Boulevard exits leading to the Huntington Beach Mall.
In North County, shoppers are advised to use Imperial Highway or State College Boulevard to get to Brea Mall. Caltrans officials said they expect the freeway off-ramps leading to the mall to back up and cause delays for drivers wanting to exit.
Brea Mall General Manager Don Ford said he expects shopping will be a frenzy today. "The economy is good and we've had a pretty good year already," he said. "The mall is fully leased and we have high expectations for all the merchants. This means we also expect a lot of cars and shoppers."
In order to accommodate the expected crush of cars, mall officials have made some changes in the parking decks, Ford said. On some decks, drivers will be able to make only right turns to help them get in and out quicker, he said. Valet parking will also be available.
Traffic flow is not expected to be a problem at the Mall of Orange, said General Manager Dan Reed.
"There are so many ways to get in and out of here that no one entrance ever gets clogged," he said. "The many exits and entrances are one of our biggest assets that attract shoppers."
Orange County Transportation Authority officials said buses will be running on a normal weekday scheduled today and are encouraging shoppers to leave their cars at home and ride buses to the malls.
OCTA spokesman John Standiford said North County shoppers can take advantage of the park-and-ride facility at the Fullerton Transportation Center, near the Santa Fe train station, where shoppers can board buses to the Brea and Orangefair malls.
Shoppers in Santa Ana can board buses at the transit terminal on Civic Center Drive, east of the Federal Building, for South Coast Plaza, Fashion Island and Westminster Mall.
"Unless you're a glutton for punishment and enjoy sitting in your car, you should take advantage of the bus service to your favorite mall," Standiford said.
Avoiding the Crowd
With the holiday shopping season officially underway today, so comes the inevitable increase of traffic tie-ups. How to avoid jams near three popular Orange County malls:
Mall of Orange Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Avoid: Katella Avenue exit from Costa Mesa Freeway Use: Lincoln off-ramp from the Costa Mesa Freeway, and Tustin Avenue entrance Parking: Good in rear lots along Canal Street
Brea Mall Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Avoid: Imperial Highway. Heaviest traffic approaches from the south along State College Boulevard and left-turn traffic signals make motorists wait to enter mall. Use: Approach from the north along State College Boulevard and use Birch Street or Randolph Avenue entrance. Lambert Road to State College Boulevard is a good alternative. Parking: Valet parking for $3 off Birch Street between Robinsons-May and Nordstrom
South Coast Plaza Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Avoid: Bristol Street entrances Use: Fairview Road exits off San Diego Freeway. Go north to South Coast Drive and then east. Bear Street is a good alternative. Parking: Use north and south parking garages and lots near Bullocks.
Sources: Individual malls