They’ve drawn up the plans. They’ve got the funding. Now it’s time for the work.
Transportation officials on Thursday officially kicked off what will be a four-year construction project aimed at alleviating congestion and preparing for future growth on a busy stretch of the 55 Freeway.
With cars zipping by on the road behind them, local, state and federal transportation officials gathered in Tustin to celebrate the start of the improvements that they say Orange County residents have been wanting for years.
The project, which will focus on a four-mile segment of the 55 Freeway between the 5 and 405 freeways, has been in some form of planning since 2014. But getting some relief on the freeway has been a priority for drivers in OC for nearly two decades, officials said, dating back to the passing in 2006 of Measure M, which created the half-cent sales tax collected for transportation improvements.
The “idea of promises made, promises kept is so critical,” OCTA CEO Darrell Johnson said, adding that “today marks another promise that we kept to the voters of Orange County.”
The major north-to-south link is one of Orange County’s most heavily traversed, with about 260,000 vehicles hitting the pavement per day – use is only expected to grow, according to transportation officials.
Right now, “it’s very, very congested for a four-mile segment,” Johnson said.
Transportation outlooks, “based upon the forecast that we have with our city partners about population, employment and housing within Orange County,” predict the number of vehicles hitting the 55 Freeway to reach 275,000 a day “over the next 15 years or so,” Johnson said.
“So the idea is, how do we sort of do a whole package of improvements to make this 55 corridor work better?”
The plan is to add a regular lane and a carpool lane in each direction of the freeway between the 5 and the 405. Reconfiguring some on- and off-ramps along that section “that can really work in concert with the local streets and roads, along Warner (Avenue), along Edinger (Street), along MacArthur (Boulevard)” will also be a focus, Johnson said.
And, a handful of bridges along the freeway will be improved, along with the building of new retaining walls.
The $475 million project is being funded in part with money from Measure M, also known as OC Go. State and federal funds make up the rest, including a $140 million earmark from the California Transportation Commission, which is “the single largest award that Orange County has received” from the commission, Johnson said.
OCTA and Caltrans are partners in the project, with Caltrans leading the construction phase.
The work is expected to cut down traffic throughout “the overall corridor, across all lanes,” and make the freeway more efficient, while expanding travel options by allowing public transit to use the carpool lanes, said Ryan Chamberlain, director for Caltrans District 12, which oversees Orange County.
It will also improve “travel time reliability,” he said, “so it’s going to make it easier for us to know what time it’s gonna take to get from Newport Beach, all the way to Orange, if you’re commuting for fun, activities or your job.”
Originally constructed in 1962 and expanded a couple of times in the following two decades, the cramped 55 was simply “designed for a different era,” Johnson said, noting features such as on- and off-ramps that “are spaced very closely together,” which adds to congestion as cars try to enter and exit the freeway.
“There’s no question it wasn’t designed for 275,000 vehicles,” he said. The number of hours in a year that vehicles on the 55 Freeway are delayed is “really off the charts.”
More cars on the highway is expected even despite the boom in work-from-home setups ushered in by the pandemic, according to Johnson. While fewer people are on the road during the typical morning and evening rush hours, the patterns have just shifted. Now, cars are pouring on during the weekends, Johnson said, adding that “we see total roadway/highway street volumes have increased.”
“Remote work and telecommuting is changing a lot of things, but it’s not emptying out the roads and emptying out the freeways,” he said. “They’re going to operate differently.”
Along with helping commuters and weekend road warriors, the improvements are expected to save 1,500 hours a day in commercial truck travel, OCTA officials said. They hope that factor, plus the reduced time cars will spent idling in traffic and the opportunity for more people to carpool, will help reduce car emissions as well.
Cutting down travel time on the 55 up to a minute per mile on that four-mile stretch is also a goal of the project, Johnson said. But the work is needed to make sure the traffic jams travelers see now don’t get worse over time.
“We’re trying to keep pace with demand and keep pace with growth,” he said.
Once the job is finished, drivers will notice more ease when traveling in the carpool lanes because they’ll be able to pass other cars, and auxiliary lanes will help smooth out traffic entering and leaving the freeway, said Ross Lew, the project’s manager.
To make the additional roadway fit, officials got creative in their design, deciding to narrow the highway lanes from the traditional 12 feet in width to 11 feet, Lew said, “to maximize the width of this corridor, to add in another lane, while minimizing impacts to the properties that are adjacent to the freeway.”
Still, 33 properties that sit tightly against the 55 were impacted by the project, and the transportation agency acquired two full sites through eminent domain, along with portions of other properties. Both full parcels were empty lots, OCTA officials said.
During construction, drivers can expect reduced speeds on the freeway, some narrowing of lanes and some overnight lane closures, Johnson said. Freeway shutdowns during the daytime will be avoided.
Transportation officials consider this project their last shot at widening the 55, Johnson said. Another expansion requiring the agency to buy businesses and houses along the freeway is “just unfathomable in our mind.”
“So the idea here, the goal here,” he said, “is to maximize that existing footprint and figure out how to make it operate better.”
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