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Cities Mull Over Traffic Solutions

Cities Mull Over Traffic Solutions 

One option to cut down traffic on 55 Freeway and Newport Boulevard is underground extension of 55.

September 6, 2008

By ALAN BLANK
The Daily Pilot

One option stands above the rest of the possible solutions to deal with the often unbearable traffic on the 55 Freeway and Newport Boulevard, according to a new study by the Orange County Transportation Authority.

The study, which will be presented to the city councils of Costa Mesa and Newport Beach and the OCTA board of directors in the coming weeks, concludes that the so-called “cut and cover” method is preferred to the other six alternatives studied. The cut and cover method calls for an underground extension of the 55 Freeway through downtown Costa Mesa into Newport Beach so that beach-going traffic can be taken off of overburdened downtown streets.

Still, the fix is not a foregone conclusion. The alternative’s cost is estimated to be hundreds of millions of dollars, and it may not be completed for more than a decade.

Three less expensive and time consuming options, including the option of doing nothing at all, have been tapped by the study as possibilities that merit further inquiry, but Costa Mesa Transportation Director Raja Sethuraman said they are far from ideal.

Among other benefits, the cut-and-cover approach would allow for a more pedestrian-friendly downtown Costa Mesa, on Newport Boulevard between 19th and 17th streets, and an uninterrupted commute to the Balboa Peninsula from inland areas, proponents say.

“We did surveys, and we had people identify which option they think is the best option. The cut-and-cover option got picked by the most people in Costa Mesa,” Sethuraman said.

Surveys were taken at community outreach sessions held by the transportation authority and Costa Mesa, and also through mailers and other methods. Only about 300 people, or less than 1% of Costa Mesans, responded in the process of trying to determine the community needs, but Sethuraman said this is standard for a project of this scope.

Aside from surveying residents, the study included many computer simulations of traffic at various intersections in the area and how it would be changed if each alternative were instituted.

Alternatives rejected by the study included a proposal to build a raised freeway extension, hoisted up on concrete pillars, and a proposal to extend the freeway through the Eastside of Costa Mesa, demolishing more than 100 homes and businesses.

Costa Mesa’s City Council will be the first to hear OCTA’s presentation at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Neighborhood Community Center, 1845 Park Ave.

Since the 55 Freeway spits out traffic directly onto Costa Mesa streets, Costa Mesa has a lot of say in what option ends up being chosen because it owns the streets, which gives it some measure of veto power.

“While we don’t have the wherewithal to make it happen alone, we certainly have the ability to preclude alternatives that aren’t satisfactory locally,” said Costa Mesa City Manager Allan Roeder.

Newport Beach is also affected by the decision, though, and some people in that city have expressed concerns that a tunneling approach might create a traffic jam wherever it spits out the cars. Caltrans is also involved in the process because the agency has jurisdiction over the freeway itself.

So even though Costa Mesans might overwhelmingly favor the cut-and-cover approach, they need some sort of consensus to move forward with any given option.

“If Costa Mesa and Newport Beach can’t agree, then I don’t think anyone wants to ram a decision down the other city’s throat,” Newport Beach City Manager Homer Bludau said.

The next step in the planning process is a comprehensive environmental impact study that would take into consideration factors such as noise, air quality and more public opinion. This phase of the study would result in a detailed report that could be presented to governmental agencies from which the city needs to get funding to make any solution a reality.

“For a project of this magnitude there is no other means to fund it other than through federal participation,” Sethuraman said.

Costa Mesa’s City Council members are awaiting Tuesday’s presentation before making final judgments, but Councilwoman Katrina Foley, Mayor Pro Tem Allan Mansoor and Mayor Eric Bever expressed interest in an option that would tunnel under Newport Boulevard to extend the freeway.

“Ideally, it would be fabulous if we could tunnel the 55 Freeway. I think that would be ideal for the residents of Costa Mesa and the businesses. It’s going to take a lot of political will, though, because it’s an expensive option,” Foley said.

“I think that separation is the optimal solution. Fifty-five percent of the traffic on Newport Boulevard at this time is through traffic, so if we can get that through the area without mixing it in with the downtown traffic, then that will solve most of our problems there,” Bever said.

Mansoor, along with county Supervisor John Moorlach and former Costa Mesa mayor and lobbyist Peter Buffa, is part of the 18-member OCTA board of directors, and thus will be involved in the decision on whether to fund the environmental impact study.

“I would like to see us go forward with the second phase of the study,” Mansoor said.

ALAN BLANK may be reached at (714) 966-4623 or at alan.blank@latimes.com.