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Planners hope to forestall congestion on I-15

Riverside and San Diego counties take steps to prevent the bottlenecks that growth and a disparity between jobs and housing will cause.

March 12, 2007|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

Coursing through rugged hills and bedroom communities, Interstate 15 from southwestern Riverside County to northern San Diego County isn't a hard road to travel -- at least not yet.

At the county line, the traffic flow is 135,000 vehicles a day, anemic for a major Southern California highway. Unless there is an accident or road construction, the highway is usually free-flowing.

But anxiety grows in both counties about the future of the 44-mile stretch from Lake Elsinore to Escondido. Commuters who shuttle between the cheaper housing in Riverside County and the more abundant job base in San Diego are beginning to report familiar signs -- bottlenecks, worsening rush hours, workers leaving early to beat the stampede.

Indeed, regional planners say that by 2030 the corridor could become as bad as the Riverside Freeway, the infamous commuter route that causes more delays than any freeway in the state.

"The potential is certainly there for another 91," said Kevin Viera, a program manager for the Western Riverside Council of Governments. "We are starting to plan now and consider all the options. Hopefully, it won't get bad before we can do something about it."

The warning signs are everywhere. Northern San Diego County and southwestern Riverside County are some of the fastest-growing areas of the state.

Projections are that the area's population will almost double to 1.5 million people by 2030. The number of jobs is expected to double as well, to more than 500,000.

Already, congestion is beginning to snarl traffic through the Temecula area during the evening rush hour, and the number of vehicles is approaching more than 200,000 on some parts of the freeway, more than half the traffic load that squeezes through Orange County's El Toro Y each day.

Planners said they became alarmed about I-15 in 2001 when the number of workers commuting from Riverside County to San Diego County had doubled to about 30,000 in five years.

The surge resulted from a migration of people from northern San Diego County who bought relatively inexpensive housing in Temecula, Murrieta and Moreno Valley in Riverside County but kept their jobs in San Diego County.

"With all the cheap land in southwest Riverside County and all the homes being built, this thing caught everyone off guard," said Escondido City Councilman Ed Gallo, who is a member of the regional planning effort.

The trend has produced a jobs and housing imbalance between Riverside County with its lower-cost homes and northern San Diego County, which is job-rich.

Planners say that many communities in southwestern Riverside County will have less than one job for every household in the years head, while northern San Diego County cities will have 1.6 jobs per household.

This kind of uneven development pattern has plagued commuters throughout Southern California for decades. The most extreme example is shown by the Riverside Freeway, the main corridor between Riverside and Orange counties.

Every workday, almost 285,000 motorists, the vast majority from Riverside County, use the highway to reach jobs in Orange County. They clog the westbound lanes during the morning rush hour and the eastbound lanes in the evening, jamming the road up to 12 hours a day.

To avoid the mess, some commuters pay up to $9.25 for a one-way trip on the 10 miles of toll lanes that run down the middle of the freeway. And even those slow at times.

Caltrans studies show that one eight-mile stretch of the Riverside Freeway through Corona produces more total delay for motorists than any other state highway -- the equivalent of 17,202 lost hours per day, or about two years.

In contrast, Interstate 15, which has six to eight lanes between Lake Elsinore and Escondido, is often a wide-open expanse of concrete where freeway speeds are easily maintained.

Lately, the road during the morning rush hour is a straight shot from Lake Elsinore to Escondido, where traffic can slow to a crawl just south of California 78 because of continuing road construction. Motorists say, however, that the evening commute back to Riverside County can get tedious.

Caltrans predicts that the I-15 corridor will exceed its capacity of 175,000 motorists a day between 2015 and 2030. The highway is eventually expected to have more than 250,000 motorists a day, almost as many as the Riverside Freeway now has.

Commuters agree with predictions that the highway could become like its northern neighbor.

"I believe it," said Timothy J. Davis, a surveyor from Moreno Valley who commutes to the San Diego offices of Nolte Associates Inc. three days a week. "I try to get out of San Diego before 3 p.m. After that, it gets bad. The crunch seems to get worse every day."

But Davis does not consider the traffic overwhelming yet. "If [planners] get proactive," he said, "they can probably contain the situation."

Planners hope to do just that with a preemptive strike. They have formed the I-15 Interregional Partnership to assess the traffic situation and find solutions to prevent congestion.

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