City to pitch in $22.5 million for new carpool lanes on 56 freeway

The afternoon eastbound traffic on State Route 56 at Carmel Country Road.
(Don Boomer/UT San Diego/Zuma Press)

The State Route 56 expansion project is a step closer to beginning construction this year as San Diego City Council last week approved a funding agreement with Caltrans for the long-awaited project.

At the April 24 meeting, City Council authorized the city to pitch in $22.5 million for the construction of high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes in both directions, reserved for buses and vehicles with at least two passengers to encourage more carpooling. Caltrans will be responsible for the remainder of the $39 million project.

The project will re-purpose the existing median within the current footprint of the 56 to build the new lanes in a 2.2 mile stretch between El Camino Real and the Gonzales Creek Bridge, just west of Carmel Valley Road.

Per the 2016 Pacific Highlands Ranch public facilities financing plan, the 56 was to be widened from its existing four lanes to a six-lane freeway. However, the city, San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), and Caltrans have all shifted focus away from expanding general purpose freeway lanes due to the negative climate and public health impacts.

According to the 2021 Regional Plan, the ultimate configuration of the 56 is four general purpose freeway lanes and three managed lanes. HOV lanes are considered a type of managed lane— two new Rapid transit routes along SR-56 are also included as part of the future plan.

The widening project, which is slated for completion in October 2025, will also include a new bicycle bridge over the east side ramps of the freeway’s interchange with Interstate 15. Along the freeway, the equally long-awaited extension of the 56 bike path in Carmel Valley is also supposed to begin in June. The bike path currently ends about 200 feet away from I-5—the project would extend the bike path underneath I-5 where it will connect to the Old Sorrento Valley Road and the Coastal Rail Trail and I-5 North Coastal Trail.

According to Stephen Wellborn, public information officer for Caltrans, a start date has yet to be finalized on the 56 widening. Equipment should start moving in for the bike path portion on June 15.

During public comment on April 24, environmentalists spoke out in opposition the project: “This is really a 1960s plan and it’s 2023 now,” said resident George Robbins.

Without practical transit in the Carmel Valley corridor, people feared that increased capacity will simply increase demand. Corrina Contreras, a policy advocate for Climate Action Campaign said that widening a small portion of the overall length of the 56 will create “additional congestion and confusion.”

Several speakers said it didn’t make sense to spend money to widen a freeway after the council just updated a climate action plan that requires them to reduce and offset greenhouse gas emissions. They encouraged the city to get creative with meaningful improvements to transit that will move people in a more sustainable way.

Council President Sean Elo-Rivera acknowledged that the project was “not a win from a climate perspective” but that they would do everything they could to “turn the wheel in the right direction.” District 1 Councilmember Joe LaCava remarked that it was an “admittedly imperfect implementation” of the city’s climate action plan, to encourage residents to pursue alternative mobility options to achieve a reduction in greenhouse gases.

“Given how we built our city, not everyone can opt for walking, biking or transit for their daily travel,” LaCava said. “Our job is to ensure as many climate-friendly mobility options available to as many residents in neighborhoods as possible.”

In her remarks, District 5 Councilmember Marni von Wipert said the project is a bit controversial in the communities she represents, where the city has increased housing density but has not provided the infrastructure, particularly public transit.

In addition to homes approved mid-freeway with Merge 56 and Rhodes Crossing, since she has been on the council they have approved another 2,000 homes at the eastern end of the 56 with The Trails, Penasquitos Village, Junipers and Millennium Penasquitos, putting all of those people onto the freeway and they now need to provide options for them. She agreed that it would be wonderful to have a bus-only route but she has been told that MTS is not going to bring bus routes until 2050: “How can we approve thousands of houses but not an HOV lane?”

She also expressed her consitituents’ worries that the expansion was only going to benefit the western part of the 56 and make traffic worse for those going home to Penasquitos and Carmel Mountain.

Caltrans North County Corridor Director Allan Kosup said the bottleneck now is in getting on and off Interstate 5 and the idea is that sorting out those first three miles will benefit everyone in the corridor. He said toward the 2040-50 time frame, plans are for the HOV lane to stretch all the way across the 56.

“I wish we were able to do it all at once,” von Wilpert said. “I’m quite frustrated for my residents and for us as a city because we didn’t plan for the increased density we’re having in this area.”