Motorists entering one of the busiest gateways between Los Angeles and Orange counties will be hit hard over the next three years by a $277-million freeway project that requires a series of road closures, including one of the main portals to a veterans' hospital and a major state university.
The work will be done in two segments, and lane and street closures are to be sequenced to minimize some of the traffic impacts.
When completed in 2014, the so-called West County Connector project built by the Orange County Transportation Authority will create a seamless link between carpool lanes and ease rush-hour bottlenecks on the 405, 22 and 605 freeways.
Until then, construction will disrupt traffic on surface streets and three highways where cars and trucks make more than 327,000 trips a day.
The two-lane 7th Street bridge over the 405 Freeway alone handles about 30,000 cars daily. Many of them head to Cal State Long Beach, the Veterans Affairs medical center in eastern Long Beach or nearby shopping areas and residential neighborhoods.
The overpass is scheduled to be closed for a year starting in late February, requiring motorists on the northbound 405 to take a time-consuming detour through Seal Beach or Los Alamitos in northwest Orange County.
"I'm concerned. It's the best way into Long Beach on the east side," said Michael Tinajero, a construction estimator who regularly drives on the 7th Street bridge to return home from work in Costa Mesa.
To help motorists avoid construction sites, the OCTA has developed detours, held about 100 meetings to educate communities about the project and set up a notification system about the timing of road closures and alternative routes. Daily updates are to be available online.
Residents, city leaders and business owners, however, remain concerned that the detours could affect local commerce, further congest busy arterial streets and shift traffic into residential neighborhoods as motorists hunt for shortcuts.
"A lot of people have not been paying attention to this. Once the closures start, we will start hearing that this is awful," said Long Beach City Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske. "Even on a good day, without any construction or closures, this can be a difficult area to get through."
The project calls for an additional carpool lane in each direction of the 405 between the 22 and the 605. Large overpasses will be built to connect the carpool lanes on the 405 to those on the other freeways.
Bridges and connectors throughout the project area are to be rebuilt, including those at 7th Street, Valley View Street and Seal Beach Boulevard. Onramps and offramps related to those structures also will be redone.
"We are a little bit nervous," said Richard Beam, director of public and community affairs at the Veterans Affairs medical center on 7th Street. "But the OCTA is getting the information out and educating people about alternative routes. Our experience has been really good."
The center plans to provide information about the project and detours to employees, visitors and patients. Beam said the facility has a staff of about 2,000, serves roughly 50,000 veterans and handles about half a million outpatient visits year.
Similar steps are being taken at nearby Cal State Long Beach, which has more than 33,000 students.
Preparations for the start of construction have been visible for several months and include the placement of concrete barriers, marking detours and late night closures of the connector between the southbound 405 and eastbound 22. Some construction has already begun at the 405 and the 22.
"When you have closures, it's tough. Traffic slows down," said Will Kempton, the OCTA's chief executive. "You do the best you can to reach out to the public and you need to act quickly to solve problems. That is not to say that we won't go without problems."
In addition to 7th Street, two other heavily traveled bridges will be affected by the project: Seal Beach Boulevard over the 405 and Valley View Street over the 22. The number of traffic lanes will be reduced on the bridges for 11 months and 20 months, respectively.
Another potential disruption involves the tunnel that connects the southbound 605 to the southbound 405. During rush hour, traffic regularly backs up there. The OCTA plans to close the connector in mid-2011, but for only 12 days.
Mel Nutter of Long Beach, an attorney and former chairman of the California Coastal Commission, questioned whether the evaluation and planning process was adequate. He noted that one detour involves using 2nd Street in Long Beach, which already has a series of busy intersections, including one at Pacific Coast Highway.
To update a 2003 environmental impact report, the OCTA conducted an in-house evaluation of the project that did not require public review.
"The way this was handled by OCTA, arguably, was a little bit under the radar," Nutter said. "The alternative routes — are they the best? Nothing looks very attractive."