In a race with the holiday season, construction crews closed a busy San Diego Freeway offramp in Costa Mesa for two weeks Friday, forcing drivers bound for South Coast Plaza and the city's biggest entertainment venues to take a detour.
Transportation officials said they sped up the timetable for work on the Bristol Street offramp from the northbound San Diego Freeway to ensure it is done before the holiday shopping season starts in earnest later this month.
The offramp was closed to allow Caltrans to build a long transition road from the southbound Costa Mesa Freeway to the northbound San Diego Freeway, eliminating dangerous weaving by drivers trying to exit at Bristol while others merge into northbound traffic. Also, an offramp will be added at Avenue of the Stars. Barring complications, work is expected to be finished by Nov. 15.
In the meantime, drivers headed for the mall, South Coast Repertory, the Orange County Performing Arts Center and hotels and restaurants are being detoured to MacArthur Boulevard and the Fairview Road/South Coast Drive exits.
"It's inconvenient," said Bobbi Kranitz of Coto de Caza, who usually takes Bristol to get to the mall. "But I've been here 18 years and always thought they should improve the offramp because of all the traffic coming from the 55 Freeway."
Orange County Transportation Authority and Costa Mesa officials said the closure did not appear to have much effect on rush-hour traffic Friday morning. By lunchtime, however, there was a major backup at the South Coast exit.
Traffic engineers say the real test will be this weekend, when people go shopping or to the restaurants and theaters.
The Bristol offramp is part of the $150-million project to better link the San Diego and Costa Mesa freeways by rebuilding ramps and adding carpool connectors. The interchange is considered among the 10 busiest in the nation.
The interchange work is one of several construction projects between Euclid Street in Fountain Valley and the Costa Mesa Freeway that have contributed to congestion and complicated travel for motorists using the San Diego and Corona del Mar freeways in recent months.
Extensive work is proceeding on the San Diego Freeway at Harbor Boulevard and Fairview Road, and along the Corona del Mar Freeway from the San Diego Freeway to Birch Street in Newport Beach. Completion is expected by 2004.
With South Coast Plaza, John Wayne Airport and major offices nearby, the San Diego Freeway through Costa Mesa and Irvine is one of the most heavily traveled corridors in Orange County. An average of 433,000 vehicles use the San Diego-Costa Mesa freeways interchange daily. South Coast Plaza attracts about 22 million visitors a year.
About 350,000 vehicle trips a day occur on the San Diego Freeway north of the Corona del Mar Freeway. The Bristol offramp carried 8,000 cars an hour during peak travel times.
"When all the work is done, the area will be transformed," said Peter Naghavi, the manager of transportation services for Costa Mesa.
As an alternative to Bristol, motorists can use the MacArthur Boulevard exit off the Costa Mesa Freeway. Bill Cecil of Yorba Linda said he took the detour to get to South Coast Plaza on Friday and found it to be a shorter trip than using the Bristol offramp. "No problems," he said. "When everything is finished, it's going to be great."
For months before the closure, Caltrans and the OCTA conducted extensive outreach to notify thousands of merchants, restaurants and hotels in the area about the project. Electronic billboards and other signs on the San Diego Freeway also helped inform motorists.
"A ramp closure is never going to be a smooth situation for us," said Debra Gunn Downing, executive director of marketing for South Coast Plaza. "But OCTA and Caltrans have been wonderful in getting the information out to our retailers and to businesses in the area."
When the Bristol offramp reopens, OCTA spokesman Michael Litschi said, it will be south of the new connector from the Costa Mesa Freeway to the north San Diego Freeway. "A 15-day closure is pretty good for a significant project," Litschi said. "It will definitely improve traffic in the long run."