Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Plans to widen State Route 76 in North San Diego County began more than 15 years ago. The project has faced challenges from the beginning, coming up against financial constraints and environmental concerns. But now transportation officials say they’re ready to move forward on the long awaited second phase of the highway. KPBS Metro Reporter Katie has the story.
Driving on the 76 through Oceanside is like using any other four lane road. Until you hit the eastern edge of town at Melrose Drive. Then it becomes a two lane road, one lane in either direction, curvy and winding and with no change in the volume of traffic. Right now, an estimated 30 thousand cars use the middle portion of the highway between Melrose and South Mission Road every day. That number is expected to rise to more than 60 thousand by 2030.
Gary Gallegos is the Executive Director of the San Diego Association of Governments , the region’s planning organization. “One of the things we probably haven’t done to well is connect the improvements with the development,” he says. “So, a lot more people live out there, obviously there’s going to be more demand for the routes. And that’s a challenge we face on all the rural routes in San Diego, that, you know, they’re reaching the point where there’s just not enough road.”
But the timing of the project isn’t entirely in SANDAG’s hands. Gallegos says he first started working on the 76 in the early 90’s when he had a job with the California Department of Transportation . He says, almost immediately, work was held up when it was discovered the endangered California Gnatcatcher lived it the area.
The current phase of the project must make accommodations for the endangered Arroyo Toad and several other species. And there was also the matter of money. Widening the nearly six miles of road is expected to cost about 250 million dollars. Voters first approved funding improvements through a half cent sales tax in 1987. But that money was used on other transportation projects.
In 2004, voters approved extending the sales tax for 40 more years with the understanding 76 would be one of the main priorities.
Gallegos says these projects take a lot of time and there are more obstacles to construction. “It takes just so many different components to come together for these. The financing has to be there, the environmental documents have to be done. The rules change. When I first started working on 76, there were no Gnatcatcher requirements, there were no Arroyo Toad requirements,” he says.
As the project dragged on, traffic increased and so did the number of accidents. According to Caltrans, the accident rate for the middle portion of 76 meets or exceeds the statewide average compared to similar two lane roads. Highway Patrol officials say drivers who don’t know the road well often travel to fast.
Margie Hopkins is co-founder of the website fixthe76nowow.com. The site pays tribute to people who’ve died along the road. “When someone makes a mistake, which we all make mistakes on the road, there’s no where to go on the 76,” she says. “You can go up a hill, down a cliff, into a tree, into a pole. If someone’s coming at you, you have no where to go.”
There are signs posted urging people to drive carefully. And CHP Office Eric Newberry says there are far more accidents on Interstate five. But he says accidents on 76 tend to be head on collisions which are more traumatic. “It’s in everybody’s interest to straighten that roadway, everybody’s interest, even our own. I mean, we have enough bona fide collisions everywhere else in the county; we don’t need to have a 76 that’s a dangerous roadway. We want people to be safe.”
CalTrans officials say they expect the accident rate to go down when the improvements are complete. There will be a barrier running down the middle of the road and curves will be straightened so they’re not as sharp. And the officials connected with the project from both SANDAG and Caltrans insist construction will get underway this year.
Ground is expected to be broken by late December and construction should be complete in two to three years. Preparation has already begun for the third and final phase of the 76 improvements. That project will widen the road from South Mission to Interstate 15.
Katie Orr, KPBS News