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Ventura County

Bridge Project Finally Underway

Transit: A $112-million expansion of the Ventura Freeway over the Santa Clara River will ease traffic between Oxnard and Ventura.


After years of anticipation, officials broke ground Friday on a $112-million project to rebuild and double the width of the aging Santa Clara River Bridge, the largest road project in recent Ventura County history.

The expansion aims to eliminate the chronic bottleneck between Oxnard and Ventura along the Ventura Freeway. It is scheduled for completion in 2006, although nesting birds, steelhead trout and the complexity of the project may test that timetable.

The new bridge will boast 12 lanes instead of six and will include a bicycle lane connecting area paths. The highway on both ends of the bridge, from Vineyard Avenue to Johnson Drive, also will be widened.

And the left-lane entrance onto the northbound freeway from the Pacific Coast Highway will be replaced with an overpass.

The overall widening will allow Oxnard to proceed with its RiverPark development, a mini-city of 2,800 homes with business space, schools, parks and a convention center that could power the city's economy for decades.

"This will begin a new era, enable us to complete the dreams we've had for many years," said Oxnard Mayor Manuel Lopez, who joined 75 local and transportation officials gathered with shovels at the river's edge to turn the soil and celebrate.

While the end result may be less congestion, the next four years could try the patience of the more than 150,000 commuters who travel the route each day.

County Supervisor Kathy Long urged commuters to look for alternate routes on Fridays and Sundays, when weekend travelers from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara clog the freeway. She called on area employers to show tolerance if workers are late or want to adjust their schedules to off-hours. And she asked area residents to be patient with road crews as they build the new bridge around the existing one.

It could be months before any bridge work is noticeable. Workers will begin by building three new northbound lanes alongside the existing ones.

Northbound traffic then will shift to the new lanes and southbound traffic will shift to the old northbound lanes. Then the old southbound span will be demolished and a six-lane span erected. Southbound traffic will then shift to the new southbound span.

Finally, the old northbound span will be demolished, a new one built, and two center shoulders added to fill in the middle. The bridge is about one-third of a mile long, and the total construction area is two miles long.

Supervisor Long called for "a mantra of patience," adding, "The end goal will be worth the wait."

Project officials hope to keep chaos to a minimum.

They will use tall screens to keep workers out of sight so drivers' eyes remain on the road, said engineer Dragan Buha. Any road closures will be at night and alternate routes will be publicized through local media outlets and a Web site that is not yet set up.

Although lanes may move around, there won't be any fewer lanes throughout the duration of the project than there are now. A truck providing tow service will roam the construction area, plucking crashed or broken-down vehicles out of the way as quickly as possible.

Still, drivers should prepare for delays, narrower lanes, nighttime road closures and general confusion on the part of other motorists during the next four years.

The push for improvements began two decades ago, and the time in between has been marked by frustration and controversy as sleepy beach and farm towns sprouted new housing tracts, business parks and shopping centers, and traffic grew. Oxnard and Ventura wrangled for years, through lawyers, about what sort of housing and commercial growth could be handled given the already-crowded bridge's limitations.

Today, the bridge is so worn--its southbound lanes were built in 1932--that transportation officials have attached structural monitoring devices to warn should a storm threaten its stability.

Crews began limited work on the expansion weeks ago, and in the coming weeks workers will concentrate on the median area south of the bridge.

It could be months, however, before the project picks up steam. Structural work in the riverbed must be done before bridge expansion can begin. Birds living under the bridge have led state Fish and Game Department officials to ban most structural work until mid-September, when nesting season ends. Much structural work also will be off limits during the wet season from November until April, because when the river rises, it is considered a habitat for protected steelhead trout.

Despite these limitations, transportation officials maintain that they can complete the project on time.

Supervisor John Flynn, a Ventura County native, said the massive project is a reality check for people still telling themselves that they are insulated from the troubles of metropolitan Los Angeles.

"People keep saying, 'We don't want to be like Orange County or the San Fernando Valley,' " he said. "But once it's built, we're urban.

"I can't pretend we don't need it, though," Flynn said. "I know we need it."


Times staff writer Holly J. Wolcott contributed to this report.

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