Work begins on $700M in North Coast Corridor projects


Construction kicked off Nov. 29 on the $700 million first phase of a 40-year project along coastal North San Diego County that will target multiple modes of transportation — an approach that state and federal officials say should be a model for all of California.

The work is part of the North Coast Corridor Program, a $6 billion multi-agency effort that will include wider freeway bridges, new carpool lanes, double-tracked railroad bridges, 10 miles of new bike paths, multiple pedestrian walkways and crossings, and the complete restoration of the San Elijo Lagoon.

Dozens of local, state and federal representatives gathered Nov. 29 during a groundbreaking held at the San Elijo Lagoon Nature Center in Cardiff.

“This project will improve the daily lives of people who live and work along the Interstate 5 corridor,” said Monica Gourdine, associate division administrator for the Federal Highway Administration.

The gain is not without some pain. Starting almost immediately, work on the carpool lanes and bridges is certain to slow traffic and make life a little more difficult for commuters at times until the first phase of work is completed in 2021.

“We are going to do the best we can to minimize that disruption,” said Malcolm Dougherty, director of the California Department of Transportation. He asked for “the motoring public” to be patient during the work, and said everyone will be better off once it is finished.

Work should begin within days on the new I-5 bridge across the San Elijo Lagoon at the border of Solana Beach and Encinitas. Construction of the Batiquitos Lagoon bridge in Carlsbad is scheduled to begin in mid-2017.

Several speakers at the Nov. 29 event said the innovative approach of combining freeway, railway, public transit and environmental construction projects will allow all the work to be done faster and with less upheaval.

“Doing all these projects concurrently gets us out of the (environmentally-sensitive habitat of) the lagoon a lot quicker,” said San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts.

It also minimizes the negative effects on traffic, business, pollution and other things, he added.

Nearly $500 million of the first phase money is budgeted for highway improvements, including the replacement bridges, additional carpool lanes, sound barriers in some residential areas, and more. Rail projects are budgeted for about $100 million, and bike, pedestrian and community enhancement programs for $40 million

Interstate 5 and the coastal railway are widely seen as an “economic lifeline,” facilitating the movement of goods and services within San Diego County and to the rest of the state.

Efforts to protect the environment and provide public recreation are interwoven into the freeway and railway work.

The new longer, wider bridges — with fewer piers in the water — will improve the health of both lagoons by allowing tidal waters to flow more freely in and out, preventing stagnation and making the tidal waters more accessible to marine life.

“We’ve been talking about the tidal flow in these lagoons forever,” Roberts said. “That has been a big issue.”

The budget also includes $80 million to pay for the restoration of the San Elijo Lagoon, a project lagoon conservancy executive director and principal scientist Doug Gibson has been working on for 20 years.

“The lagoon is home to more than 700 plant and animal species, many rare or endangered,” Gibson said. “The loss of this critical habitat has slowly progressed over the past century.”

Experts estimate as much of 90 percent of coastal California’s wetlands have been covered by development.

San Elijo and other San Diego County lagoons provide a critical part of the remaining wetland habitat. Additional areas will be set aside and protected at San Elijo as part of the mitigation efforts required for widening the freeway and railway.

Also, selective dredging and filling will remove the unnatural buildup of sediment in the lagoon and restore a healthy environment for more of the natives species. The lagoon restoration is scheduled to begin in mid 2017 and continue through 2021.

Additional trails will be built to improve public access to the lagoon, including a pedestrian undercrossing beneath the railroad bridge that will connect east and west ends of the lagoon for the first time since the railroad was built more than 100 years ago.

— Phil Diehl writes for The San Diego Union Tribune