Infrastructure money could unclog ‘nightmare interchange’ in North County

Westbound traffic on state Route 78 backs up at the entrance ramp of the interchange to southbound Interstate 5.
Westbound traffic on state Route 78 backs up at the entrance ramp of the interchange to southbound Interstate 5 Monday.
(Bill Wechter/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego leaders described plans to modernize interchange between I-5 and state Route 78


A notoriously congested interchange between state Route 78 and Interstate 5 in North County could be upgraded with federal infrastructure money, Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Capistrano, said Monday.

At a presentation in Oceanside with County Supervisor Jim Desmond and Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear, Levin said the planned improvements would increase traffic flow, reduce vehicle emissions and improve public safety.

“This interchange is often a traffic nightmare,” Levin said, speaking over freeway noise at a parking lot next to the interchange. “It simply cannot handle the number of cars that are driving through here on a regular basis, particularly during rush hour, leading to gridlock and more idling vehicles that increase air pollution. The traffic as a result of this interchange is also a serious public safety issue.”

The junction connects two heavily traveled freeways, but instead of an uninterrupted transition, vehicles in the westbound lanes of state Route 78 must wait at a stoplight to turn south to get onto Interstate 5. This leads to back-ups in the westbound lanes causing delays as long as 15 minutes during rush hour and increasing the risk of accidents.

“I-5 is one of the busiest freeways in the country, and this interchange has been outdated and actually produces a public safety hazard,” Desmond said. “For too long, I’m sure everyone knows, we’ve been sitting bumper-to-bumper on highway 78. It’s time for us to come up with a solution.”

To modernize the interchange, officials plan to build a flyover overpass that would route cars over existing lanes, said Blakespear, who is chair of the San Diego Association of Governments. It would replace the traffic light and allow vehicles on state Route 78 to merge seamlessly onto I-5 without slowing or stopping.

“It’s been on the wish list for the region for many years,” she said.

The $1.2 trillion federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed in November, authorizes funding to modernize roads, bridges, rail, ports, water systems and broadband lines. California’s share includes $29.5 billion for roads and bridges, which officials hope to tap for the interchange, Levin said.

Improvements to I-5 and 78 interchange

The federal Department of Transportation will provide $4.8 billion to California immediately and CalTrans will administer the money within the state, Levin said. The North County interchange project requires two or more years for environmental review and engineering plans, he said. After that construction of the new interchange could be completed within about 18 months.

Desmond, a Republican, said he doesn’t believe enough money has been dedicated to road improvements in regional transportation plans, but he was happy to see the interchange in Oceanside flagged as a priority and was pleased to collaborate with Democrats, including Levin and Blakespear.

“Having a stoplight at a freeway interchange has been frustrating for years,” Desmond said. “This is exactly how things should be working: parties coming together, bringing federal dollars to better the lives of San Diegans.”

Besides reducing road hazards, improving air quality and reducing greenhouse emissions, the project will create construction jobs for local workers, Levin said.

“Infrastructure jobs are not jobs that can be outsourced; they can’t be offshored,” he said. “They are jobs in America, done by Americans for the benefit of America.”

Also on Monday Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, met with city and county officials at Liberty Station to discuss how federal dollars could help build electric vehicle infrastructure in San Diego.

Money from the federal infrastructure act “will go hand-in-hand with city and county plans in San Diego that seek to make our city more walkable and transit-friendly and increase access to electric charging stations, which are badly needed as drivers transition away from gas-powered vehicles,” he said.

In July the city of San Diego began shoring up its climate plan with more specific action items in an effort to cut greenhouse emissions. The county is rewriting its climate plan entirely and is developing a separate decarbonization plan to slash countywide carbon emissions to zero by 2035.

The federal infrastructure act sets aside $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging stations nationwide, which could help San Diego build a network that makes it more convenient to drive electric cars, officials said.

“Our goal for these funds is to make it as easy to power up your family’s electric car as it is right now to put gas in an old pick-up truck,” said Nathan Fletcher, chair of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

Peters, Fletcher and San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria also said they will work with legislators on infrastructure efforts for fleet vehicles. The law as it stands does not provide money for charging stations on city property, but officials said they hope to change that.