Despite $240 million in improvements to the Costa Mesa Freeway since 1998, traffic is as bad as ever on Orange County's central corridor, and a persistent bottleneck remains a vexing problem for drivers and transportation officials.
Congestion on the 55 Freeway between the San Diego and the Garden Grove freeways has steadily increased since the 1990s. Traffic has become especially clogged at the Edinger Avenue on- and offramps, where the number of vehicles has grown to 279,000 a day, an 11% increase in a decade. The volume rivals the notorious Riverside Freeway.
Caltrans predicts that by 2030, that stretch of the 55 will handle 332,000 vehicles a day on average, because of population growth and high-rise development nearby.
But how to unclog the 55 -- and where to get the money to do it -- is a multilayered puzzle.
The state is planning to build three auxiliary lanes in the bottleneck area -- a project scheduled to run from 2010 to 2014 -- but state and county transportation officials said there were no plans for other major improvements.
Transportation officials say the corridor is emblematic of many urban freeways: As soon as they are fixed, the area's population grows and increased traffic develops, re-creating the congestion.
The 55's problems are exacerbated by developments and expansion of commercial facilities, especially near the interchange with the Santa Ana Freeway, said Kia Mortazavi, director of development for the Orange County Transportation Authority.
"It's a constrained area," Mortazavi said, adding that yet another study is underway on how to improve the roadway.
The 55 is the main route connecting central Orange County to the 91. It is heavily congested during rush hours by commuters coming into the county from the Inland Empire.
"The level of service is already very bad at the peak, and lots of growth is predicted for the area," said Jim Beil, Caltrans deputy district director for capital programs in Orange County.
According to a 2005 traffic study, the 5/55 interchange was designed to reach and operate at its "ultimate capacity" in 2010. But by 2003, multiple segments of the 55 already were clogged and beyond capacity during peak periods.
In fact, a number of areas near the interchange are chronically jammed. A highway is at "level of service F," according to Caltrans engineers, if traffic moves at speeds of less than 20 mph, under stop-and-go conditions, and at times the traffic completely stops for short periods.
While Caltrans has plans for auxiliary lanes on the 55, only two of the three lanes are funded. Otherwise, there are no imminent solutions that will unsnarl the commute.
Kevin Edquist, 45, who lives in Orange, says he avoids the 55 altogether during his morning drive to work near Red Hill Avenue off the 5 Freeway in Tustin.
"I take surface streets down to 4th, where I get on the I-5 and go south to Red Hill," he said. "It takes me 15 minutes, but if I use the freeway it's at least 25 minutes just to get to the I-5."
Transportation officials have considered rebuilding the 5/55 interchange, but such a large-scale project would have large-scale effects on areas in Santa Ana and Tustin.
Instead, they are proposing the auxiliary lanes, improvements to Edinger and other roads paralleling the freeway, and modifying or closing freeway ramps -- all of which would cost $13 million to $25 million. Santa Ana and Irvine also are planning an Alton Avenue over-crossing.
All told, the plans, including a carpool lane drop ramp, will help relieve freeway traffic at Edinger and MacArthur Boulevard.
"We need to squeeze everything out of the existing system before we make large investments that have the potential for major impacts on the neighboring community," Beil said.
Tustin Mayor Jerry Amante said the traffic on the 55, which cuts through the western part of his city, "is one of the worst bottlenecks in the county."
Amante, who is on the OCTA board, said previous freeway projects had expanded the corridor to its widest margins, leaving little room for additional improvements.
"We've widened and widened and widened . . . over and over again," he said. "It has given us the most capacity we can get, and really, now we're just tinkering with the margins."
From 1998 to 2002, Caltrans and OCTA made $118 million in improvements to the northern six miles of the 55, from the 22 Freeway to the 91. The work was completed in January 2002.
The highway was widened from eight lanes to 10, and the connection to the 22 was rebuilt. The redesigned connector eliminated a notorious stretch where traffic from the 22 merged onto the 55 at the same spot as traffic trying to exit at Chapman Avenue.
On- and offramps were enlarged to at least two lanes and in some areas widened to three, such as at Katella Avenue. Overpasses and underpasses for city streets also were widened.
In early 2005, work was completed on a $125-million project at the 55, where it meets the 405 -- one of the nation's 10 busiest interchanges.
The improvements included a two-lane carpool bridge linking the northbound 405 to the northbound 55 and ramp work to better connect the southbound 55 to the northbound 405.
Three years ago, an OCTA committee reviewing potential projects to be financed by a renewed sales tax called Measure M recommended $366 million for additional improvements to the 55.
But the freeway didn't make OCTA's priority list for early funding after voters overwhelmingly renewed Measure M.
The list includes $1.6 billion in projects that will start before 2011 to the Orange, 91 and 405 freeways.
Consideration was based on congestion, project readiness and other criteria, the OCTA's Mortazavi said.
"We had done work, including a major investment study" on the 91, so that rose to the top of the list."