IRVINE — Transportation officials on Wednesday unveiled what they described as the cornerstone of a $166-million project to unclog the notorious El Toro Y freeway interchange, one of the busiest in the county.
Donning orange vests and hard hats, the engineers and planners gave a tour of the 67-foot-high Bake Parkway offramp, a huge concrete structure set to open next week that careens off the southbound Santa Ana Freeway seemingly into space. The 1,859-foot bridge, along with a smaller offramp from the San Diego Freeway, will allow commuters aiming for Bake Parkway to bypass entirely the infamous interchange where the two freeways meet.
"This is a major improvement," enthused Sam Hout, project manager for the Orange County Transportation Authority, which is overseeing the project with the state Transportation Department. "I'm really excited about its magnitude."
Also excited was Mike Ward, the mayor of Irvine, where residents frequently complain about commuters who try to avoid freeway congestion by traveling city streets.
"All this spaghetti is starting to make sense," Ward said, referring to the labyrinth of improvements largely paid for by Measure M funds, supplemented by money from the city and the county. "It's going to really benefit the people who use the Y and the residents of Irvine."
Currently, according to Hout, 300,000 to 350,000 vehicles a day pass through the El Toro Y, which is designed to handle a maximum of about 300,000. The new offramps and other improvements, he said, will boost that capacity by about 100,000 vehicles.
"It's going to alleviate the congestion," Ward predicted. "We've been waiting for this an awful long time."
The process has not been without glitches, however.
Originally scheduled for Friday, the opening had to be delayed until sometime next week, officials said, because of a light rain that prevented workers from completing the freeway striping. Current plans, they said, call for the two new offramps to open in time for the El Toro Air Show, beginning April 26.
About the same time, officials said, they will reopen the Alton Parkway onramp to the southbound Santa Ana Freeway. The onramp has been closed for several months to be redesigned.
Sometime this summer, they said, workers will finish improvements on various access ramps connecting both freeways to Bake Parkway and Lake Forest Drive.
And by the end of the year, planners said, the process will be completed with the addition of two new carpool lanes in each direction on Interstate 5.
But the most dramatic benefit, according to California Department of Transportation senior engineer Saeid Asgari, will be derived next week with the opening of the two Bake Parkway offramps.
"This is an historic journey," he said, as Wednesday's tour bus rumbled over one of the still-unused concrete structures looming in the sky. "It's the first time a bus has gone over this bridge."
Later he waxed proudly on the speed with which the improvements were being made available to the public, despite the delays caused by the weather.
"As soon as this stretch of road is done, we're putting rubber on it," Asgari promised. "We're not hanging onto any stretch of freeway."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Two new exits for Bake Parkway from the southbound San Diego and Santa Ana freeways are the latest pieces of the redesigned El Toro Y. Both will bypass the Y proper. How the new ramps and other improvements fit into the reconstruction:
* Opening Next Week
A. Redesigned onramp to southbound Santa Ana Freeway from Alton Parkway.
B. Exits at Bake Parkway from southbound Santa Ana and San Diego freeways.
C. Bake Parkway onramp to northbound Santa Ana Freeway.
* Already Open
D. Irvine Center Drive offramp from northbound San Diego Freeway.
E. Bake Parkway access ramp to northbound San Diego Freeway.
* Opening This Summer
F. Lake Forest Drive exit from southbound San Diego Freeway.
G. Bake Parkway onramp to southbound Interstate 5.
H. Bake Parkway exit from northbound Interstate 5.
I. Lake Forest Drive access ramps.
Source: California Department of Transportation