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Orange County

Freeway Atop Rail Line Offered as 91 Relief

Transit: The 10-mile route linking Orange and Riverside counties is just one idea. Another is a tunnel through Cleveland National Forest.

July 11, 2002|JEAN O. PASCO and DAN WEIKEL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Irvine Co. has proposed stacking a freeway on top of railroad tracks through Santa Ana Canyon to relieve traffic on the Riverside Freeway, an idea that illustrates how desperate planners are to ease the daily crush on one of Southern California's most congested highways.

The 10-mile freeway would be built above a heavily traveled rail line from Interstate 15 in Riverside County to the Foothill tollway in northeast Orange County, running parallel to the Riverside Freeway. The result would be side-by-side freeways passing through the canyon that links Orange and Riverside counties.

The idea is one of several ambitious proposals to handle commuters from Riverside and San Bernardino counties traveling to jobs in Orange and Los Angeles counties. Others include drilling a tunnel or carving a highway through Cleveland National Forest, and double-decking sections of the Riverside Freeway.

The rail-line freeway idea was unveiled by Irvine Co. representatives in a meeting last month with Riverside County officials, who have been overhauling transportation plans. The company provided no cost estimates or drawings.

Though it has received no official endorsement, the proposal is significant because planners and elected officials are eager to find a way to relieve pressure on the Riverside Freeway, the only major link between the fast-growing Inland Empire and Orange County's job market.

Building a second freeway through Santa Ana Canyon could satisfy both counties by providing a new transportation link without intruding into the rugged forest, company officials said. It also would help meet future demands created by as many as 71,000 homes planned on old dairy farms in Chino and Ontario off Highway 71, which intersects the Riverside Freeway west of Corona.

"This could be a good idea that is in the ballpark," said Eric Haley, executive director of the Riverside County Transportation Commission.A major player in transportation projects for 20 years, the Irvine Co. has been openly skeptical of other possible routes, especially a proposed 11-mile tunnel that would run from Highway 133 in Irvine to Cajalco Road at Interstate 15. Company officials fear they would have to pay for road improvements caused by workers using the tunnel to head to jobs in north Irvine. The company is planning 17 million square feet of office space there.

"We were invited to the table and we wanted to involve ourselves," said Dan Miller, a government liaison for the developer. "We were not there just to say no to the tunnel. This was another idea. Frankly, it's taken on a life of its own."

Motorists make about 250,000 trips a day on the Riverside Freeway. By 2025, more than 400,000 daily trips are expected. Dealing with such dramatic growth has been a source of political tension between Riverside and Orange counties. Elected officials are wary of public reaction, the cost, how projects would be financed and potential damage to the environment.

Neither an elevated freeway nor such a tunnel has been built in Southern California, though the necessary technology exists.

Taisei Construction Corp. of Japan has a tunnel-boring machine that could easily handle the job, said Thomas Tschudin, a vice president for the company's American subsidiary based in Cypress.

"We're doing things that were in the science-fiction books 30 years ago," he said. So far, Riverside County has examined four surface routes to bring traffic through Cleveland National Forest, options that are politically opposed in Orange County. One of the routes would involve rebuilding the winding Ortega Highway between Lake Elsinore and San Juan Capistrano.

The tunnel proposals include the Cajalco tunnel, designed by former Irvine Mayor Bill Vardoulis, which would bring cars, trucks and utility lines through the mountains. A tunnel proposed by the Riverside County Building Industry Assn. would cut through the mountains from Interstate 15 and loop back to the Riverside Freeway, where it would connect to the Foothill tollway along four miles of double-decked lanes.

Both tunnels would link to Cajalco Road, which turns into the Ramona Expressway and runs past the March Air Reserve Base, one of the region's newest cargo airports.

The Southern California Assn. of Governments, a regional planning agency, endorsed an alignment between the city of Irvine and Cajalco Road in 1998. Executive director Mark Pisano said the planning effort was dropped in the face of opposition from the Orange County Transportation Authority.

Orange County officials have insisted that short-term improvements to the Riverside Freeway be made first. They point to OCTA polls indicating the public is opposed to any route through the forest. They also insist that more inland commuters are driving toward jobs in north Orange County and Los Angeles County than in Irvine, indicating a more northerly alternative is needed.

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