Ventura County commuters and traveling motorists will get a break this summer when widening of the Santa Clara River bridge on U.S. 101 is completed, a project that officials hope will eliminate what for years has been one of the worst traffic bottlenecks north of Los Angeles.
Congestion at the bridge is usually at its peak during rush hours or on weekends, with traffic often backing up for miles in both directions.
Local commuters have suffered the most.
"I don't take the freeway home," said Ventura resident Nicole Syverson, an office assistant in Oxnard's Topa Financial Plaza. "There's always, always traffic there. I take another way to avoid it."
But come mid-August, crews are expected to finish construction. In place of the original seven-lane bridge will emerge a 12-lane expanse.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 07, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Bridge widening: An article in Monday's California section about the widening of the Santa Clara River Bridge on U.S. 101 near Ventura incorrectly stated that the only other highway that crosses the river is 45 miles upstream in Newhall. California Highway 118 has a multi-lane bridge that crosses the river in Saticoy, about four miles upstream from U.S. 101.
"It's the largest [road] construction project in Ventura County," said Caltrans spokeswoman Judy Gish.
"It's part of the whole U.S. 101 corridor," Gish said. "Anything we can do to ease congestion in that area is going to improve the highway and access locally as well as for through-traffic between Southern California and Northern California."
Work began in 2002 and was to be completed in four years. But problems and design revisions delayed the project and pushed construction costs from $72 million to $85 million, officials said.
Indeed, the bridge project has been something of a running joke among county motorists. On many days, commuters would cross the half-completed span and see no one working.
Ed Puchi, treasurer and general counsel for Sacramento-based MCM Construction Inc., the project's general contractor, said construction had been plagued by strict work schedule limitations -- to protect wildlife -- and heavy flooding.
MCM is a leading bridge builder in California and has erected spans over Malibu Lagoon on Pacific Coast Highway, built the Riverside Freeway-Interstate 5 interchange near Knott's Berry Farm, and installed bridges across Interstate 210 between Fontana and San Dimas.
But the Santa Clara River bridge project "is one of the worst ones in terms of delays or problems," Puchi said. "It doesn't take that long to build a bridge, but it takes that long ... when you're restricted ... during winter months."
Between Dec. 15 and June 1, crews couldn't use heavy equipment in the streambed. Wildlife authorities imposed the restriction to protect a rare songbird that, despite the nearby traffic and development, nests in the willows and alders along the river.
The presence of the imperiled southern steelhead trout, which migrates up the river in winter months, also has hampered progress on the bridge.
And there were other problems.
Deluged with the heaviest rainfall in Southern California in more than 100 years during the winter of 2004-05, the swollen Santa Clara River swept away the project's scaffolding and support equipment.
Violence and vandalism also took their toll. Last year, an assailant stabbed and killed 54-year-old Steven Knapp, a welding inspector, as he slept in his truck.
Meanwhile, growth and development pushed more cars onto the freeway. On average, about 150,000 cars traverse the bridge daily. At peak times, 12,000 cars per hour cross the span, said Samia Maximous, director of highway planning for the Ventura County Transportation Commission.
On Friday afternoons, when daily traffic mixes with weekend travelers from Los Angeles and Orange counties, traffic can sometimes back up as far as Westlake Village, nearly 30 miles away.
"It's a huge bottleneck," Maximous said.
Several factors converge at the site to make traffic particularly acute. The only other highway across the Santa Clara River is 45 miles upstream in Newhall.
Another major route, Pacific Coast Highway, intersects the 101 near the river bridge, pouring additional traffic into the chokepoint.
Despite several large commercial and residential developments planned nearby, officials are confident that the bridge-widening will be able to accommodate growth.
Average daily traffic flows are forecast to reach 214,000 trips daily and peak traffic flows are expected to reach 18,000 vehicles per hour by 2025, according to Caltrans and the county Transportation Commission.
Nevertheless, officials say the newly widened bridge will help eliminate major traffic tie-ups.
"A 12-lane bridge is a significant amount of additional capacity," Gish said.
"We don't expect it to be obsolete in the very near future, even with all the growth around it. Everyone was aware that growth was happening and would continue."