Burb's Eye View: Road signs warn of a traffic nightmare

When San Fernando Boulevard underneath the Golden State (5) Freeway overpass closes next month, it will be closed forever, forcing Burbank neighborhoods to cope with an undeniable increase in traffic for at least two years.

Yet many neighbors and businesses in the area still don’t know that stretch of road is about to be wiped off the map.

Through the city’s website, through emails, through community meetings and with recently installed signs, the news of the San Fernando Boulevard closure has been no secret, per se. There are many maps, presentations and FAQ sheets on the official project website, i-5info.com/magnolia-boulevard-to-buena-vista-street.

But this week I talked to several neighbors and commuters who either didn’t know the closure was happening so soon, or they didn’t know where all that traffic is about to go.

On the official I-5 info site is a very detailed map of the detour route.

Currently, to get from the Bob Hope Airport area to downtown Burbank, it’s a straight shot down Thornton Avenue to Lincoln Street. A three-way stop some 30 feet away lets you connect to San Fernando Boulevard, where you can drive under I-5, continue down toward McCambridge Park and eventually hit the mall.

That San Fernando connection will be gone next month. San Fernando Boulevard will instead connect directly under the highway and railroad tracks to Empire Boulevard, creating a straight link between the mall area and Empire Center.

That will take two years. Until then, cars and trucks will be given a detour route that can easily be avoided if they cut through a residential neighborhood and pass by an elementary school.

The posted detour will send cars up Buena Vista toward Glenoaks. A 2007 traffic study predicted 700 more cars during morning rush hour and 900 in the evening. Before these motorists even get as far as I-5, they’ll be adding to the existing traffic visiting a hotel, a gas station and the Boys and Girls Club of Burbank.

“Our summer program is huge here — you’re talking about 400 kids a day,” said Shanna Warren, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club.

The detour will then send cars underneath I-5. Motorists who want a quicker route toward downtown will likely find Winona Avenue, a quiet residential street that contains several dozen houses, Bethany Korean Church and the main access for George Washington Elementary School.

It’s a public road. There’s nothing to stop people from taking the shortcut — but is it ready for the traffic?

Farther southeast toward McCambridge Park are more apartment buildings and townhomes. This is a community of public commuters relying on buses to get them to work or elsewhere.

Until last fall, Georgina Alujan took one bus, the 94, to get from her home on Grismer Avenue to her job at Ralphs on San Fernando Road to her classes at East L.A. College, where she is studying to earn her GED. What was a straight shot is now a boondoggle of transfers and added wait times since the 94 bus now travels Victory Boulevard on the other side of the freeway.

“It’s not easy, going to school and coming back,” she said. “It’s hard sometimes (to take public transit) if you want to get stuff done.”

City workers have already started prepping the new detour route around I-5 with new traffic cameras and triggers in the road that detect when a car approaches a traffic light.

“We are working to enhance the traffic signals along that route, to observe the traffic and make changes as the detour goes into effect,” said David Kriske, Burbank’s deputy city planner for transportation.

He acknowledges there’s still work to do in informing the public about the changes. Only recently, a giant orange sign went up at the Lincoln/San Fernando intersection that reads, “San Fernando Blvd will be closed permanently May 2014,” then more information is available at (855) 454-6335 and www.i-5info.com.

For its part, the California Department of Transportation held a public meeting in March on the project and has used social media and email to let residents know about the I-5 project. Traffic mitigation on local streets is left to the city to manage.

So, for the next two years, the detour will send traffic in a yawning loop around the area where the snaking San Fernando Boulevard underpass used to wind. That’s when the Empire/San Fernando connection is scheduled to open, just in time for the Burbank Boulevard overpass to shut down for 14 months so CalTrans can continue installing carpool lanes.

After all that, we’ll be in 2017 — a bright, shiny future in which the state’s high-speed rail project could impact this very same corridor for many more years.

As the chairman of the city of Burbank Transportation Commission told me Monday, it’s amazing with all this planning and reconfiguring that it ever worked in the first place.

“But when you disturb that … when you shut down roads and bridges, it’s a little scary that the word hasn’t gotten out there,” Paul Dyson said.

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BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant from the East Coast. He can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com and on Twitter: @818NewGuy.

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