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Cities Want Say in Widening I-5 : Traffic: Caltrans is studying how best to ease the Santa Ana Freeway bottleneck between the 91 and 605 interchanges.


NORWALK — State transportation officials are working with six area cities on a plan to relieve congestion on a portion of Interstate 5 that cuts through southeast Los Angeles County.

The California Department of Transportation has chosen a Tustin-based engineering firm--DeLeuw, Cather & Co.--to study how best to ease congestion along I-5, the Santa Ana Freeway, from the Artesia Freeway into downtown Los Angeles.

But it is a 9-mile stretch of I-5, from the Artesia Freeway (91) to the San Gabriel River Freeway (605), that is to be improved first, said Dottie Odell, a Caltrans administrator.

The stretch, which has three lanes in each direction, already is badly congested. But it will become an even tighter bottleneck by the late 1990s, when I-5 to the south is scheduled to be widened to at least 10 lanes. The I-5 north of the San Gabriel River Freeway was expanded to eight lanes in the mid-1980s, a Caltrans spokesman said.

The study will consider adding more lanes--both standard and car-pool--as well as an elevated roadway for buses, Odell said. If all goes well, construction could be completed by the late 1990s, she said.

But Odell said Caltrans must first secure the blessing of six cities bisected by the freeway that have formed a consortium to review proposed improvements.

Last Tuesday, La Mirada became the last of the six cities to join the consortium. The others are Commerce, Downey, Norwalk, Santa Fe Springs and Buena Park, which is in Orange County. The consortium will have its first formal meeting later this month, said Norwalk City Manager Richard Powers, who organized the group.

Each city has contributed $5,000 to the consortium. The money will be used to pay for such things as engineering and lobbying services, Powers said.

Consortium officials agree that improvements are needed along the aging stretch of freeway, but they say the work must be done without widening the freeway beyond its current boundaries. From Buena Park to Downey, homes, restaurants, car dealerships and industrial buildings press close to I-5.

Past Caltrans' proposals envisioned widening the freeway to as many as 12 lanes through the area, Powers said. Such a widening would have displaced numerous residents and businesses along I-5.

"It would have devastated the economic base of at least Norwalk, La Mirada and Santa Fe Springs," Powers said. "Our main concern is not disrupting what's existing in the cities today."

In Norwalk, a freeway widening could threaten a new Sheraton Hotel, which opened last year. It could displace already completed and planned commercial redevelopment projects in La Mirada, and a Santa Fe Springs auto mall. A freeway widening also could cut into Buena Park's auto row, officials said.

"We obviously can't impact our residential areas and our key downtown retail areas with such (an expansion)," Buena Park City Manager Kevin O'Rourke said.

Local officials recall the loss of private property in the 1970s to make way for the Century Freeway, which is currently under construction from Los Angeles International Airport to Norwalk. More than 340 homes and apartments were razed in Downey alone.

"We've had enough houses displaced in Downey already," said Downey Councilman Robert G. Cormack, who is one of his city's representatives to the consortium.

Local opposition to widening the freeway beyond its boundaries helped stall previous plans to improve traffic flow on I-5 through the area, Powers said.

The last such effort was a 1984 study that proposed expanding the freeway to as many as 12 lanes, a Caltrans spokesman said.

Currently, 168,000 to 188,000 cars a day travel I-5 between the San Gabriel River and Artesia freeways, Caltrans senior planner Daniel Kopulsky said. By 2010, traffic is projected to increase to 280,000 trips a day.

The northbound lanes are congested about two hours every day, while the southbound lanes are clogged for about an hour each afternoon, Kopulsky said. To help alleviate congestion, motorists are permitted to drive on the southbound shoulder during rush hour.

If two lanes were added, the stretch of freeway would be able to handle the current level of traffic, Kopulsky said. Adding two more lanes would handle capacity at least through the year 2000, he said.

Odell said the study would determine how many lanes could be added without exceeding current freeway boundaries. The study also will pinpoint the costs of the various alternatives to aid traffic flow on the I-5. The study and an accompanying environmental impact report are scheduled to be completed by December, 1994, Odell said.

Although Caltrans is primarily concerned with moving more cars through the corridor, local officials also want improvements to the on-ramps, off-ramps and freeway bridges that create traffic congestion on local streets.

The consortium will lobby for federal funds to make such improvements, officials said.

"The off-ramps have gotten old and antiquated," said Powers, the Norwalk city manager. "We want to increase (freeway) capacity, upgrade the on- and off-ramp system and bring it up to the full standards of a modern freeway."

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