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Wider 91 Has Inside Track

Officials seeking ways to unclog the Riverside Freeway eliminate plan for a parallel highway.

November 19, 2005|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

A strategy to unclog the Riverside Freeway emerged Friday after 18 months of talks when policymakers recommended widening the existing road and continued study of an elevated highway and a tunnel through Cleveland National Forest.

The advisory panel of elected officials from Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, however, eliminated from consideration a proposed highway that would run parallel to the 91 from Interstate 15 to the Foothill-Eastern tollway.

Also ruled out was a $3-billion proposal to widen Ortega Highway, a two-lane road through mountainous south Orange County. Officials said the project wasn't worth the cost because it would accommodate only a few thousand additional motorists.

The recommended strategy must be approved by the boards of the Riverside County Transportation Commission and the Orange County Transportation Authority. The agencies formed the advisory committee last year and provided $3.3 million to study ways to improve transportation between Orange County and the Inland Empire.

The 12-member panel voted unanimously to assign an immediate priority to widening the 91 Freeway, the only major transportation link between Orange and Riverside counties.

Traffic on the highway is expected to increase from 250,000 trips by motorists a day to as many as 480,000 trips by 2030. Most of the trips are made by commuters from the Inland Empire headed to jobs in Orange and Los Angeles counties.

The widenings would occur between I-15 in Riverside County and the Costa Mesa Freeway in Orange County. About $1.5 billion in sales tax revenue has been earmarked for the work, which would increase the number of lanes to 17 in some places. Preliminary timetables indicate the improvements could be finished by 2011.

The panel also recommended more detailed analysis of an elevated four- to six-lane highway down the median of the 91 from I-15 to the Foothill-Eastern tollway. That roadway would cost between $2 billion and $3 billion.

In an attempt to win support from Riverside representatives, Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle proposed the elevated route in lieu of a highway that would parallel the 91.

Cities such as Corona have opposed the parallel route because it would require condemning hundreds of residential and commercial properties.

Meanwhile, Orange County residents and business interests such as the Irvine Co., the county's largest landowner, have urged improvements in the 91 Freeway corridor.

Similarly, the panel approved continued study of a four- to six-lane tunnel under Cleveland National Forest. The estimated cost is between $5.5 billion and $8.5 billion.

The tunnel would link I-15 in Corona to the Laguna Freeway in Irvine. The route has been widely supported in Riverside County and opposed by several south Orange County cities.

"Five years ago, if you would have told me there would be another corridor other than the Riverside Freeway, I would have thought you were crazy," Corona Councilman Jeff Miller said. "We thought it would never happen, but here we are."

The panel further recommended working with the Transportation Corridor Agencies, which operate the Foothill-Eastern that connects to the 91 Freeway.

Planners say any improvements to the 91 will fall short of what's needed unless more drivers also use the tollway.

Riverside County Supervisor John Tavaglione said the list of recommendations was a "great compromise" between Orange and Riverside counties. Orange County's desire to fully exploit the Riverside Freeway right-of-way, he said, has been achieved by including an elevated highway for further study.

At the same time, Tavaglione said, Riverside County has gained consideration of the tunnel through Cleveland National Forest -- a proposal widely supported in the Inland Empire.

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