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Big plans under way for interstate

Posted: September 25, 2009 10:02 p.m.
Updated: September 26, 2009 4:55 a.m.
 
The good news: the state plans to fix traffic congestion on Interstate 5.

The bad news: it may take close to half a decade - and all the while, the stop-and-go is becoming more stop and less go.

Planners have been looking at the idea of expanding the I-5 since 2003, according to Victor Lindenheim, executive director for the Golden State Gateway Coalition, a nonprofit transportation-education advocacy organization.

"It's the backbone of the economy, and it runs from B.C. to B.C.," Lindenheim said, referring to I-5's route from British Columbia to Baja California and its significance in matters ranging from industry to homeland security.

Despite the highway's continent-spanning characteristics, local residents are most concerned with the 13.1-mile stretch that runs through the Santa Clarita Valley, linking it through the Newhall Pass to the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles.

That stretch presents plenty of challenges: a lack of carpool lanes, safety issues involving two truck lanes merging with mixed-flow traffic near the top of the Newhall Pass and increased traffic from more than 25,000 new homes expected to be built in the region.

Caltrans has a proposal in the works to move the proposed freeway expansion past the environmental stage and closer to shovel-ready.

However, funding a proposed $506 million to $650 million freeway expansion takes time and money, which equates to dozens of levels of approvals, environmental reports, and more delays.

A road more traveled
"The I-5 is ... susceptible to complete gridlock, costing billions of dollars," Congressman Howard P. "Buck" McKeon said in testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure supporting I-5 expansion projects.

Citing truck-traffic volume expected to double by the year 2030, he noted I-5 already supports 690,000 jobs and $90 billion worth of commerce.

Through the SCV's stretch of freeway alone, big-rig trucks range from 9.4 percent to 20.8 percent of the total traffic volume - nearly double the average of 5 percent to 8 percent, according to Caltrans.

"With this level of truck traffic, delays and accidents can be attributed to slower-moving vehicles, especially in sustained grades south of the Pico Canyon Road-Lyons Avenue interchange," agency officials said.

Planners worry that increases in truck traffic will coincide with growth in the area's population.

A Caltrans report says automobile traffic through the Santa Clarita Valley is expected to increase by nearly 100 percent between now and the final phases of the current build-out plan for the region in 2030.

To give a better visual in terms of traffic volume: Imagine yourself stuck in the Sepulveda Pass on Interstate 405 at 5 p.m. on Friday - with one less lane to accommodate the flow of vehicles.

Path to future roads
"The North County is one of the fastest-growing areas of the state, but it seems to have been a stepchild for many years," said Marsha McLean, Santa Clarita City Council member.

One part of the problem is that funding dollars are calculated on a per-capita basis. Robert Newman, Santa Clarita's director of public works, said calculations don't accurately reflect the Santa Clarita Valley's spread-out populace, projected growth or the I-5's importance as a corridor for commerce traveling to the northern half of the state, country or continent - all of which funnel through Santa Clarita Valley's portion of the I-5.

Further confusing the matter is the funding process, a labyrinthine procedure of approvals that vary depending on the agency supplying the grant or funds needed to plan and construct more roads.

Caltrans is due to release its recommendation for I-5 expansion any day. The recommendation will reflect about six years of studies and environmental reports.

Caltrans has provided two alternatives for the future of traffic on the I-5 through the Santa Clarita Valley, and both include a carpool lane where the current one drops off after the northbound 405-5 interchange and continues through to Parker Road in Castaic, going southbound the same distance as well.

In addition, a lane would be added to the two truck lanes passing through the same region, and instead of joining up near the top of the pass, the now-three lanes would stay separated until Calgrove/Lyons, where there is less of an incline.

No fast lane for funding
The approvals, planning and monies to be acquired will add years to the completion date of the project.

After the current environmental report is approved, it will be sent for authorization from the Federal Highway Administration because the project in question is an interstate freeway.

Then the proposed expansion moves to the planning phase, where it becomes organized, meticulously planned and "shovel-ready," which takes another 18-24 months and is necessary before funding may be sought in certain cases, but not for all funding sources.

"The funding process is so complicated, there are so many mechanisms that you have to go after funding," said McLean, a member of the North County Transportation Coalition, a group that analyzes and develops transportation policies for the region and then acts as a vehicle to seek funding for the projects.

"You have to go after state funding, you have to go after federal funding, and now with Measure R being passed, you have to make sure you go after that," she added.

While Caltrans can't comment on likely funding sources before the project is approved, based on past project funding and intended usage, Measure R looks like a likely source.

The measure, which passed despite opposition from voters in Santa Clarita and Castaic, was a half-cent sales-tax increase for the county to help pay for transportation projects and programs with the $40 billion it is supposed to generate over the next 30 years.

"Funding will be pursued through all possible avenues," said Maria Raptsis, a Caltrans spokeswoman. "And that includes state, private partnerships and maybe local measures that Metro may have."

But as far as looking forward to watching those first trucks pass through their own dedicated Santa Clarita Valley truck lanes? Or being able to sneak onto a carpool lane with a mannequin in the passenger seat?

"We're still years away from that," Raptsis said.

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