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TALES FROM THE FREEWAY

The Terrible Common Denominator--Traffic

May 10, 1990

For all of North County's divergent lifestyles--from the fast-lane yuppies of the coast to the suburban families of the inland neighborhoods, from the gentry of Rancho Santa Fe, Fairbanks Ranch and Pauma Valley to the mobile-home tenants of San Marcos and Escondido-- we all share one great equalizer.

Traffic.

The afternoon slowdown on California 78 eastbound at San Marcos Boulevard changes for no one. Nor do the morning slowdowns of Interstate 15 southbound at Poway Road and Interstate 5 southbound at Via de la Valle. We all get caught behind the same slow feed truck groaning up the grade toward Ramona on 78, or the tentative tourist along our favorite shortcut to the coast--Del Dios Highway out of Escondido. We get caught behind the same sand and gravel trucks on winding California 76 alongside the San Luis Rey River (or, worse yet, we find ourselves in front of the fearless trucks and wish they'd back off!).

In this kind of traffic, the other guy's Mercedes or Jaguar or Beamer goes no faster than any '79 Volvo that's missing two hubcaps.

Of course, we have been spoiled some. To us, moving along at 70 m.p.h. used to be (and in many cases, still is) the norm as we developed our split vision--one eye on the guy in front of us, the other one trained on the rear-view mirror for the California Highway Patrol.

We grump when we see a black-and-white get on the freeway and go 55 and, of course, no one's got the guts to pass him by doing 56. Then the CHP pulls off the off-ramp and you know he's getting right back on again, so you still do 55--and you secretly wish some bozo would whiz by you at 75 just so the cop will be busy writing him up, giving you a few minutes when you can get back to 70.

Some traffic bottlenecks are improving--like along 78 where the widening project now gives us three open lanes in each direction for a three-mile stretch between Escondido and San Marcos.

But we still have our ticklish spots along 78--like where you turn southbound onto I-5. If you don't move over quickly from the slow lane, you end up taking the first off-ramp into Carlsbad. Or 78 westbound, where you've got maybe a quarter mile to get into the slow, right-hand lane in order to head north on I-5--and you're fighting traffic that's getting onto 78 from Jefferson Road.

Over in Escondido, the hyperventilator is going on northbound I-15 from Via Rancho Parkway after you've been shopping at North County Fair, and you have to move over a lane or two, or you end up being forced off the next off-ramp, Centre City Parkway. At the same time, the folks on I-15 who are doing 70 are coming up from behind you and it seems like half of them are moving over into your slow lanes because they do want the Centre City Parkway off-ramp leading into Escondido, and they're not about to give you any room of your own to move over. Makes you want to use those armed hubcaps out of Ben Hur.

There's a wonderful boomerang traffic experience in Escondido. It's for the poor motorist going northbound on I-15, who gets off at Via Rancho Parkway to head west, towards Lake Hodges and Del Dios Highway. After you turn left at the off-ramp's signal and head over the bridge across the freeway, you rightfully assume you're in the appropriate lane for through traffic heading west. Ooops. The two left lanes of Via Rancho Parkway both force you back onto southbound I-15.

But do you know where our real traffic problems are in North County? I'll tell you: it's the surface streets that take us to, and get us off, the freeway.

OK, let's see a show of hands. Who's taken 78 westbound and gotten off at Melrose--especially at 8 in the morning, to go to the Vista courthouse? Getting from the off-ramp onto Melrose southbound is like playing on your child's video game Frogger, where you try to cross the traffic without getting squished into guacamole. Quick, go! No, don't. Now! No! Yes! OK, then pull just halfway into the traffic lanes and block the guys on the left--who are stopped in traffic anyway--while you wait for the traffic from the right to clear up. Oh no, now the guys on your left can move--but you're blocking them and you can't move because there's even more traffic from the right!

Another mess is 78 at El Camino Real in Carlside-Oceanbad--especially on the north side of 78 where you've got to contend not only with off-ramp traffic signals but those of Vista Way, the frontage road.

Indeed, anyone who's at the Vista courthouse who wants to go to the El Camino shopping centers for lunch had better call ahead for reservations--and I don't mean for the restaurant.

"Hello, I'd like to reserve a spot on Melrose at, say, 12:03 p.m. and, uh, maybe a spot on El Camino Real at, oh, 12:16. Yes, that'll be a compact for two. And maybe by then I'll be smoking."

Not all our roads are high-anxiety, though.

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