The first major revamp in years for Orange County’s choked and aging freeway system is expected to be unveiled this week when $166 million in improvements to the infamous El Toro Y bottleneck are scheduled for completion.
About 100,000 more vehicles a day will be able to travel what’s arguably the most detested leg of Interstate 5 in the county. Motorists used to moving ahead by inches and feet amid the sea of red brake lights will now have 26 lanes of roadway at the Y’s widest point.
That’s the most lanes in the county and possibly the United States.
“I don’t want to say it is the widest in the world because I don’t know what’s going on in other countries,” said Orange County Transportation Authority spokesman John Standiford. “We sure don’t know of any interchange that is wider.”
Only the carpool lanes, built as towering cement overpasses, remain unfinished. Most of the widening work at the Y, which was previously only nine lanes, was completed last year and South County drivers are already seeing the benefits.
“I can already knock off about 10 minutes off my commute, each way” to Garden Grove, said Mission Viejo resident Richard Hill as he pumped gas into his car near the Crown Valley Parkway offramp. “It’s worth all the hell we went through while they were building this thing.”
On the primary San Diego to Los Angeles route, the El Toro Y is where the Santa Ana and San Diego freeways merge near Lake Forest, Irvine and Laguna Hills.
Under construction for more than three years, it will be the first large-scale project completed using money from Measure M, a $3.1-billion transportation fund approved by county voters in 1990.
About 400,000 vehicles will be able to use the Y daily, up from its former 300,000-car capacity.
The El Toro Y was rated by many transportation officials as the most congested freeway interchange, worse even than the confluence of the Orange, Santa Ana and Garden Grove freeways--known as the “Orange Crush"--in Santa Ana.
Worse, there are few side streets to take when traffic starts to back up on the El Toro Y.
“At least with the Orange Crush, there are always some surface street alternatives,” Standiford said. “For many years, the Y has been considered the worst bottleneck in Orange County.”
Several major safety improvements were also made at the El Toro Y.
Because signage marking lanes leading to the San Diego or Santa Ana freeways was poor, motorists often jumped several lanes at the last second in a desperate dash not miss the interchange.
More signs have been installed and approach lanes lengthened to give drivers more time to choose their freeway.
“In some ways, that was the most important improvement of the whole project,” Standiford said. “The decision time [to choose an offramp] has been extended. We don’t have that merging dance that used to take place.”
The project’s completion also means the last of midday traffic congestion caused by construction that South County residents have endured for three years.
“Folks have suffered through the pain of commuting through the El Toro Y for a number of years,” said county Supervisor Thomas W. Wilson, a Laguna Niguel resident and former OCTA board member. “Then they had to go through the frustration of living through construction” of the improvements.
Frustration reached a peak last summer when OCTA and the California Department of Transportation, which is also working on the project, closed several exit ramps for renovation near the interchange.
But in the short time that has passed since he was appointed to his Santa Ana-based position last November, Wilson has noticed a sharp improvement in his commuting time.
“Coming into work in the morning, I get in 10 minutes quicker,” he said. “Going home, it’s 15 minutes.
“I think you’re going to see a lot of happy folks once this is all completed. People are going to have to rearrange their schedules once they discover it takes less time” to get through the El Toro Y.
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El Toro Y: A Grand Opening
After three years, and $166 million, improvements to the El Toro Y are finally completed. A look at the project highlights:
El Toro Y addition highlights:
1. New offramp to Irvine Center Drive
2. 26 lanes at widest point
3. Carpool lane bridge accesses northbound San Diego Freeway
4. Bake Parkway bridge spans freeway
5. Exits to Bake Parkway bypass El Toro Y
6. Exit to Lake Forest Drive bypasses El Toro Y
7. New feeder road bypasses El Toro Y
El Toro Y construction involved thousands of workers and a massive amount of materials. Some of the details:
* More than nine miles of auxiliary lanes
* 15 miles continuous carpool lanes
* 3.4 miles of feeder roads
* Five new bridges
* 30 new sound walls
* 30 redesigned ramps
* More than 125,000 Botts dots
What it took to build the five bridges:
* 32,010 cubic yards of concrete
* 4,500 tons of steel
* 675 work days to complete project
* Created 4,316 jobs
* 400,000 vehicles will be able to use the Y daily, up from 300,000 before the improvements
Source: Orange County Transportation Authority