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Toll Road Linking South County to Airport Opening Early

September 13, 1996|DAVID HALDANE

The final stretch of a controversial new toll road connecting Laguna Niguel to John Wayne Airport will open Nov. 21, just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday and well ahead of schedule, transportation officials said Thursday.

"We're putting signs up, doing some striping and putting railing on the bridges," Gene Foster, project manager, said of the 15-mile San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor. "But the pavement is there."

Officials of the Transportation Corridor Agencies opened the new tollway's first segment--a 7-mile stretch from Greenfield Drive in Laguna Niguel to Laguna Beach's Laguna Canyon Road--on July 24. At that time they predicted that the rest of the road would open in December, more than three months ahead of the original anticipated completion date of March 1997.

But because of a combination of circumstances, including good weather, coordinated planning and financial incentives to the contractors for finishing early, the road will open even sooner, agency officials said.

When completed, the road is expected to siphon traffic off Coast Highway, and the Santa Ana and San Diego freeways, reducing to 20 minutes a one way commute between Laguna Niguel and Newport Beach that can now take as long as an hour and a half.

But that convenience will come at a price: Tolls on the new road are expected to range from 25 cents to $2, depending on the points of entry and exit. They will be payable either in cash or by using transponders, devices mounted on windshields that allow electronic detectors to debit a driver's account.

The $1.5-billion project is the cornerstone of three major toll roads in South County--totaling 70 miles--that have been under construction since 1993 and are expected to be completed by 2003.

But the project has drawn some controversy. For years, environmentalists and Laguna Canyon residents protested the project, arguing that it would destroy the pristine wilderness area through which the road passes.

Some protesters chained themselves to bulldozers to stop the work, prompting legal actions that dragged through the courts for years. And recently, area residents had expressed irritation at the increase in traffic they believed the new road's initial segment would bring to Laguna Canyon Road.

Whatever increases there were, said Michele Miller, a Transportation Corridor Agencies spokeswoman, will be alleviated by the opening of the full road all the way to the airport.

"It seems like people really are embracing and enjoying the road," she said of the first segment, which now serves an average of 8,500 cars a day. A year after the full road opens, she said, planners expect that number to have increased to about 70,000.


Fast Lanes

Final sections of the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor will open Nov. 21, bringing the entire roadway into service earlier than expected. Here's what open now and what will be ready in November.

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