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Helping the Canyon's Commuters

Counties will study options for Inland Empire-to-O.C. drivers, including a tunnel and a freeway over the train tracks.

August 25, 2003|Jean O. Pasco and Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writers

By deciding to preserve a former grapefruit orchard for possible construction of the east end of a new route between Orange and Riverside counties, the Corona City Council last week took a step sure to cheer such harried commuters as Melinda Smith.

Smith, an X-ray technician at several Orange County hospitals, lives in Horse Thief Canyon, a tidy neighborhood along the eastern edge of the Cleveland National Forest between Corona and Lake Elsinore. A former Huntington Beach resident, she moved inland in 1985 for solitude and space.

Now, facing clogged freeways and a 90-minute commute each way, Smith said she's more than ready for a new road. It would provide a badly needed alternative to the overloaded Riverside Freeway, which squeezes through the Santa Ana Canyon to join the two counties.

"I've been all for it," she said of a proposed toll tunnel that would stretch from the Eastern toll road in Irvine to Cajalco Road at Interstate 15. "I can't wait."

This kind of talk is common east of the Santa Ana Mountains, where a tunnel under the forest to central Orange County is seen as critical to moving Riverside County workers to jobs in Orange County.

On the west side of the mountains, however, the idea is seen as radical, unlikely and even distasteful. California has its share of auto tunnels, but nowhere is there an 11-mile stretch underneath mountain peaks.

Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge said he understands the reluctance on the other side of the mountain to push a new road through. "We see it as relieving traffic congestion," he said. "They see it as increasing traffic congestion."

Beyond traffic concerns, some in Orange County complain that a new road would bring to Orange County more "909-ers" -- a reference to the area code -- or "day-timers," dismissive terms for those who live in Riverside and San Bernardino counties and travel to Orange County for work or recreation.

"I've heard comments about 'those people' who work in 'lesser jobs,' said civil engineer Bill Vardoulis, a former Irvine mayor who developed the tunnel proposal three years ago. "That's the distasteful part of it."

The Irvine Co., which owns the Spectrum, has joined environmentalists in criticizing the plan for its potential harm to sensitive wildlife areas where the tunnel would disgorge traffic on either side of the mountain.

The company prefers the equally exotic idea of building a parallel route along the Riverside Freeway by building traffic lanes atop existing railway lines, a proposal opposed by track owners Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

What's not in dispute is the need for relief. Motorists make about 250,000 trips a day on the Riverside Freeway. By 2025, commuters are expected to make more than 400,000 daily trips.

More than 60% of the motorists using the 91 Express lanes, a toll road that runs down the center of the Riverside Freeway through the Santa Ana Canyon, live in Riverside County, according to transponder sales records.

So, slowly, Orange County is getting on board.

The Orange County Transportation Authority recently agreed to join the Riverside County Transportation Commission in an 18-month study that will consider options for relieving traffic between the two counties, including the tunnel and the double-deck railway-freeway.

That's a reversal from 1998, when OCTA officials pressured the Southern California Assn. of Governments to remove its endorsement of the Cajalco option from regional transportation plans.

Supervisor Bill Campbell, who sits on the OCTA board and represents eastern Orange County, said more study is needed before both counties decide together on which option.

"We should look at all options and not lock into one," Campbell said. "We know there's a need. We're all singing from the same hymnal."

Riverside transportation officials express the same caution.

"We don't want to get into a situation where one alternative is floated out there before you can do all the analysis of various alternatives," said John Standiford, spokesman for the Riverside County Transportation Commission. "The tunnel is something that has to be evaluated. It has to be studied."

Loveridge agreed that all options should be studied but wants one of them undertaken. Commuters cannot continue to waste time in bumper-to-bumper traffic while political leaders are stuck in their own form of gridlock, he said.

"We need to see what comes out of the study, but you simply can't fit all the cars you project in the future down the current 91 corridor," he said.

He commended Corona for its vote to declare a building moratorium on the former grapefruit orchard as a way of protecting a possible option.

Vardoulis has been unswayed by critics.

He said he's made 85 presentations on the idea, mostly to civic groups in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Only in recent months have Orange County groups started to take notice, he said.

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