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Dividing They Stood : Outdated They'll Fall, as Caltrans Poises Ax Over I-5 Oleander Bushes

August 24, 1988|ERIC BAILEY | Times Staff Writer

Let us shed a tear for the faithful freeway bushes.

For years, those thick and leafy oleanders along the median strip of Interstate 5 in North County have swayed with the turbulence caused by passing semis, Subarus and Greyhounds, providing a welcome visual relief to an otherwise drab motoring landscape.

But the life and times of the freeway bushes, like all good things, are approaching an end, the sorry victims of growth and the churning wheels of progress.

Ubiquitous Centerpiece

Plans are afoot to begin removing a 12.9-mile stretch of the oleanders from Carlsbad to Del Mar sometime after mid-1990 to make way for construction of a concrete barrier, that ubiquitous centerpiece of the modern highway.

Though certainly less aesthetically pleasing than the billowing oleanders, which produce a riotous display of blossoms during the spring and summer, the concrete divider is far safer, and will make room for new lanes to handle the soaring traffic volume on the interstate.

"We need the extra width, and we need to protect the motoring public with a better-designed barrier," said Jim Larson, a spokesman for the California Department of Transportation, the agency planning the changes. "The oleanders are just one of those casualties, I guess, of an urbanizing area."

The only thing that keeps opposing traffic in San Diego County apart along I-5 north of Del Mar is the oleanders and a thick cable draped about 32 inches above the ground between metal poles.

That 1960s-era cable is designed to stretch when hit by a car's bumper, slinging the vehicle away from a head-on catastrophe, Larson said.

But many modern cars are built lower to the ground, meaning the cable can slip over the top of the fender and "create some pretty serious injuries instead of slowing the vehicle down," he said. Some cars have even slipped through the barrier.

CHP Is Concerned

"I think it's pretty well-established, and I think every lawyer in town knows, that we're kind of on notice to replace that stuff," Larson said.

He said the California Highway Patrol has expressed concern about the oleanders, noting that the bushes often grow so thick and high that officers are unable to survey traffic and scan for problems in oncoming lanes.

Such concerns aside, the bushes are destined for the ax because of a pressing need to add new lanes to the freeway, which has experienced a profound traffic crunch in recent years.

In Encinitas, traffic on I-5 has jumped from 130,000 cars a day in 1985 to 164,000 today, a 26% increase in just three years. Volumes are even greater farther south, with nearly 220,000 cars a day now common where the freeway meets Interstate 805. Projections call for more than 300,000 trips a day by the year 2010, Larson said.

All that traffic, Larson said, has made it far more risky for Caltrans crews to venture onto the median to trim and maintain the shrubs.

Larson said Caltrans officials realize that the doomed oleanders are "a community resource of sorts and do add to the beauty of the ride" through North County. In an attempt to mitigate the loss, officials plan other plantings along the side slopes and other open areas, he said.

Removal of the shrubs and installation of a new concrete barrier is included in the agency's fiscal 1989 budget, Larson said. Although the budget has yet to be approved, items in the document are rarely deleted, he said.

A few years ago, many area residents complained to Caltrans after the agency chopped down scores of the shrubs along the median near Del Mar Heights Road, saying the road work had sterilized the strip of highway.

Larson said he would not be surprised if a similar uprising occurs when the stretch of bushes from Agua Hedionda Lagoon in Carlsbad to the San Dieguito River in Del Mar is toppled, although the denuding will almost certainly be publicized in advance.

The bushes do seem to strike an emotional chord in many area residents.

"I'll miss them," said Carlsbad City Councilman John Mamaux, a longtime resident and veteran freeway motorist. "I think they're great."

Mamaux said he prizes the oleanders not only for their visual beauty but also for the role they play at night in keeping the lights of oncoming cars out of a motorist's eyes. He also said the bushes seem to catch many cars that career toward the center divider.

Aesthetics aside, Larson said, a concrete center divider will prove much safer. Plans also call for sections of the freeway from Carlsbad north to be stripped of their bushes in the coming decade.

"The bottom line," Larson said, "is we would have an awful hard time telling someone who lost a loved one out there that we saved the oleanders to make the freeway look pretty instead of concentrating on safety issues."

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