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On the Road, Again! : Residents of the Remote O.C. Foothills Learn to Be Creative in Their Commuting Routes

THE NEW PIONEERS: Trailblazers' frustrating drive to work takes its toll. Fourth in a series.

March 30, 1994|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sweat gleaming on his face as his arms and legs pump rhythmically, Randy Case is doing what he always does after completing his commute to Rancho Santa Margarita.

Instead of going home at the end of his workday, he heads straight for the new Family Fitness Center half a block from his condominium.

"I stop off here to reduce the stress of driving and my job," he says, pumping away on a computerized exercise bicycle. "I drive a lot on my job."

A computer salesman whose territory spans San Diego to Santa Barbara, Case is typically on the road up to four hours a day several days a week. He had just driven back from Santa Monica, although lately he's been spending a lot of time in the San Fernando Valley.

And how does he describe the drive?

"It's a mess," he says. "It's very unpredictable. Sometimes you can sail the freeway in 45 minutes; other times it might take you two hours. That's the most frustrating part of it."

The stress and frustration of commuting are nothing new to Orange County residents.

But residents of Rancho Santa Margarita and the other new foothill communities of South County who drive to work spend a lot more time in their cars than their counterparts in other parts of the county.

Indeed, although an overwhelming majority of foothill community residents view the area as a "very favorable" place to live--82% according to The Times Orange County Poll--living in such a remote portion of the county can be frustrating.

Nearly half of foothill community workers drive 30 minutes or more each way: 44%, or more than double the number of workers throughout the county with such long commutes. Only 38% of poll respondents spend 20 minutes or less on the road, compared to two out of three in the entire county.

The poll shows that foothill community residents are as likely as other employed South County workers to work in South County (61% to 60%), while 29% work in North or Central County, 8% work in Los Angeles County and 2% work elsewhere.

But regardless of where they work, traffic congestion during their commute is viewed by more than half (56%) of foothill community residents as a problem, with 14% calling it a "big problem."

It's a problem for Tom Broadbent.

The Rancho Santa Margarita resident leaves between 6 and 7 a.m. for his hour drive to work in Garden Grove, where he owns a fire extinguisher company. His drive home at night typically takes an hour and a half, "sometimes even longer."

And then there's the El Toro "Y," the infamous convergence of the San Diego and Santa Ana freeways and the bane of Broadbent's commuting existence.

"It's very bad," Broadbent says. "Every morning and every night, that's the only bad part of the whole commute."

How bad is the "Y"?

Just ask Susan Lokietz, a Rancho Santa Margarita resident, who says she has sat in traffic at the "Y"--"until you figure out other ways." Her solution? "You follow cars that seem to know what they're doing."

"People who live out here know all kinds of ways to avoid the El Toro 'Y,' and if I told you, you'd be amazed," she says. "Like you go down Bake to Barranca and you get on the 133 and then it dumps you off at the 405 north, or you could go onto the 5 north."

A long commute is the price residents of Rancho Santa Margarita and the new foothill communities pay for living in an area known as one of the most secluded in Orange County. But for most of these foothill residents, it's worth it.

Says Case, 31 and single: "I moved out here because I like the area--it's quiet, clean and the houses are affordable." As he sees it, "the commute is the only thing that is a drawback."

Early residents of Rancho Santa Margarita and the surrounding areas remember when the only major road in and out of the community was Santa Margarita Parkway--then a two-lane road that took them several miles to congested El Toro Road, followed by an additional five miles down to the freeway.

But the commute--at least to the freeway--has greatly improved in recent years and planners say it's going to get even better.

Relief has come in increments.

First, Santa Margarita Parkway was widened to four and then six lanes. (That included a second bridge over Arroyo Trabuco parallel to the first, with each bridge now handling three lanes in each direction.) That took care of one of the worst bottlenecks.

Then Alicia Parkway was extended from Mission Viejo into Rancho Santa Margarita in early 1992, providing residents another access route to Interstate 5. Indeed, after the opening of Alicia Parkway, a Santa Margarita Co. study showed a 25% decline in traffic along Santa Margarita Parkway during peak hours.

And when a new stretch of Oso Parkway--in conjunction with an Antonio Parkway extension-- opened a few months later after years of red-tape delays and construction setbacks, the transportation milestone was marked with all the hoopla of a returning Olympic champion: balloons, a parade and even a blessing from a Catholic priest.

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