By Joe Tash
Caltrans unveiled new details regarding its plan to widen I-5 in North County at a public meeting in Encinitas on Wednesday, Sept. 19, which include additional work to restore and preserve lagoons, and more bicycle and pedestrian paths.
At the meeting, held at the Encinitas Community and Senior Center, North County residents were able to examine graphics depicting different elements of the project, ask questions of Caltrans technical experts, and even dictate comments and questions to a court reporter.
The new information about the project is contained in a draft supplemental Environmental Impact Report, which was officially released for public comment on Aug. 31. The public has until Oct. 15 to review and comment on the document. Additional documents to be released in the coming months include a final EIR and a “public works plan,” that will also include plans to upgrade rail service along the I-5 corridor.
Caltrans officials stressed that the project includes more than adding four carpool lanes — for a total of 12 lanes — between La Jolla and Oceanside.
“This is not a highway-centric solution,” said Allan Kosup, Caltrans I-5 Corridor director, in brief remarks to the crowd of about 50.
Instead, they said, the project will include rail improvements such as double-tracking, enhancements to North County lagoons, bicycle paths along the entire 27 miles of the project, and pedestrian walkways.
“Our goal is to enhance the environment in the community while trying to provide congestion relief,” said Arturo Jacobo, Caltrans project manager.
Those who didn’t attend the meeting can view the environmental documents and provide comments at the project website, www.keepsandiegomoving.com.
In preparing the supplemental EIR, Caltrans commissioned hydraulic and other studies to determine how best to protect and enhance the health of the lagoons. The study found that longer bridges over three lagoons — San Elijo, Batiquitos and Buena Vista — are needed to provide better water flow in and out of the lagoons. Bridges across Penasquitos, San Dieguito and Agua Hedionda were found to be adequate, Jacobo said.
Caltrans has also acquired 100 acres of land along the lagoons, which will be preserved as open space to compensate for environmental impacts of the I-5 project.
Planners have also added bicycle lanes along the entire project corridor; some will be within the freeway right-of-way, while others will be on local streets, Jacobo said.
Construction on the road improvements and environmental mitigation could begin in 2014, pending approval by the California Coastal Commission and other agencies, Jacobo said. The road portion of the project will cost $3.5 billion, while the total project, including rail improvements, is pegged at $6.5 billion. The estimated completion date for the entire project is 2035.
Reaction to the new project details was generally positive from those who attended the meeting.
“We think it’s a major step to improve the health of Batiquitos Lagoon and we’re ecstatic about that,” said Jim Brown of Encinitas, a member of the Batiquitos Lagoon Foundation. He said the foundation is concerned about the impacts of construction on the lagoon, however.
And Solana Beach Councilwoman Lesa Heebner said, “I’m pleased with what I see. They responded well to the concerns many of us had about the health of our lagoons.”
Heebner questioned Caltrans staff about a planned access ramp at Manchester Avenue, which she said is a concern to the community.
Jacobo said the ramp has been redesigned to go below the freeway, rather than above it, and that a planned park-and-ride lot at Manchester has been downsized from 471 to 150 spaces.
Betsy Cotton of Encinitas said she attended the meeting to find out more about the project. She said she appreciates the efforts of Caltrans to plan the project, but wants to see more emphasis on public transportation.
“I just feel badly that so much real estate is being given up to cars,” she said. “If everything keeps going the way it is, it’ll be one giant freeway from coast to coast.”