What the approved I-5 corridor plan means for Encinitas
Last week, the California Coastal Commission unanimously approved a $6.5 billion package of freeway, rail and bike infrastructure from La Jolla to Oceanside.
Called the North Coast Corridor program, a number of its projects are slated for Encinitas.
Those include: an underpass on the Manchester Avenue strawberry fields; adding rail lines; constructing roundabouts at the Birmingham Drive freeway interchange; and widening Interstate 5.
“If you want to drive, ride your bike, take the train or car pool, there will be more options,” said Arturo Jacobo, Caltrans project manager. “We’re very happy with the approval.”
The underpass, often referred to as a direct-access ramp (DAR), aims to make it easier for cars on Manchester Avenue to enter I-5.
The DAR would take car-poolers, buses and fee-paying drivers directly onto I-5 “express lanes.” Those in the express lanes could exit via the ramp as well.
Ultimately, plans call for building four I-5 express lanes — two in each direction — from Oceanside to La Jolla, a major component of the corridor program.
Additionally, a 150-space park and ride lot, designed to encourage car-pooling, would be located next to the DAR. The park and ride would also have bike lockers and electric vehicle charging stations.
And it would link up with yet another project: a separate bike path running parallel to the freeway.
Last June, the Encinitas City Council pointed out its reservations with the direct-access ramp, but agreed to support it in a letter to the California Coastal Commission.
But the backing was contingent on several conditions: Notably, council members said Caltrans must follow through with San Elijo Lagoon mitigation and restoration. And some of the strawberry fields would have to be preserved for open space or agriculture.
That way, the council reasoned, at least some of the land could be protected, because the grandfathered-in strawberry fields are zoned as residential. Hence, the city is powerless to stop the land from being developed.
The Manchester Avenue projects would take up seven acres of the 30-acre strawberry fields.
Caltrans hasn’t yet determined how many of the 30 acres it will buy and the amount that could be set aside for agriculture or open space, according to Jacobo.
“Our goal is to preserve as much of the strawberry fields as possible,” he said.
He noted Caltrans is in the early stages of negotiations with the owners of the fields.
“At a minimum, we will need seven of those 30 acres of farmland — how much more depends on negotiations,” Jacobo said.
With the coastal commission’s vote, transportation agencies now have the go-ahead to begin construction on the corridor program. That is, as long as project designs conform with the master document that the coastal commission approved.
All told, the sweeping plan is expected to take 30 to 40 years. However, funding hasn’t been obtained for long-term projects.
Because funds are in place for the Manchester direct-access ramp as well as the park and ride lot, construction could begin as soon as summer 2015, Jacobo said.
Also on the horizon: Construction for one express lane in each direction from Manchester Avenue to State Route 78 in Oceanside. That’s scheduled for early 2016.
Building the second northbound and southbound lane would come in the second phase of the corridor program, from 2020 to 2030.
The transportation agencies in charge of the program have stated they will regularly review projects to see whether they should be amended or whether they’re still necessary.
For now, Caltrans has stated that the four express lanes are needed to grapple with freeway gridlock becoming more common.
Opponents of the freeway widening, including the environmental group Cleveland National Forest Foundation, have argued that the program overestimates future motorist traffic, and thus it’s too car-centric.
Councilwoman Lisa Shaffer, the city’s representative on SANDAG, the agency that put forward the corridor program, said that’s a fair concern.
Nonetheless, Shaffer said, since many SANDAG representatives were pushing to widen I-5 even more, four lanes was a workable compromise. She added that if the traffic projections don’t come to pass, then the transportation agencies may reconsider the express lanes billed for the second phase.
To allow for more trains, the program would add a second rail track from the southern edge of the San Elijo Lagoon to Cardiff, a distance of 1.5 miles. On a related note, the 60-year-old wooden San Elijo Lagoon rail bridge would be replaced with a concrete bridge.
Construction on those features should wrap up by the end of 2018, according to estimates.
Eventually, a second track would be added for sections of the rail line between Moonlight Beach and the Batiquitos Lagoon in Carlsbad.
Since more trains will be speeding through North County, the city needs more rail undercrossings to alleviate delays for pedestrians, motorists and bicyclists trying to cross the tracks, Shaffer said.
The city is searching for grant funding for planned undercrossings at El Portal Street, Montgomery Avenue and Grandview Street. Each undercrossing runs about $5 million.
Last year, an undercrossing at Santa Fe Drive debuted to the public.
“Overall, I think it’s a good plan,” Shaffer said of the corridor program. “But there are some things that need to be addressed.”
Over the past decade, the city has held numerous citizen workshops to inform plans for the program. For instance, in response to residents’ feedback, the Manchester park and ride design was reduced to one-third of its original size.
Also, the corridor program includes a roundabout at both the Birmingham Drive northbound and southbound I-5 on-ramps during the second phase. The goal: Improve traffic flow. But some residents have opposed them, arguing they’re unsafe.
In hopes of blocking out the noise from I-5, 15 soundwalls got the green light in Encinitas. Three are near Leucadia Boulevard; three would go near Birmingham Drive; three for Encinitas Boulevard; four for Manchester Avenue and one each at Santa Fe Drive and Requeza Street.
More could appear down the line if funding becomes available or private property owners contribute money toward them, according to Mike Strong, associate planner with the city.
To be considered for a soundwall, areas had to exceed recommended thresholds. For residential areas, that’s freeway noise greater than 67 decibels from a backyard.
And the city’s Arts Commission is looking at murals and other artwork to spruce up the soundwalls.
The $6.5 billion program will be paid for through a mixture of federal, state and local finds. This includes TransNet, the voter-approved half-cent sales tax for transportation projects in the region.
For descriptions of more Encinitas projects in the program, visit keepsandiegomoving.com.