I-15 corridor destined for increased traffic


Last updated 4/26/2007 at Noon

Back in 1975 when the first transportation plan was laid out for San Diego County, planners asked residents for support of a heavy rail system.

“People laughed at us,” said Garry Bonelli of the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG). “They said, ‘I can get anywhere I want to go in San Diego County in 20 minutes.’” In 1975 that was true, he said.

More than 30 years later, that statement is laughable.

As those who have lived even a little while in the area are well aware, there has been a population and housing boom that has strained infrastructure and transportation routes. People moved to Southwest Riverside County for affordable housing, but they can attest that the commute to get to their jobs in San Diego County keeps getting longer and more frustrating.

As housing prices soar and traffic congestion increases, the county is designating areas near transportation corridors as the best places for development. The junction of Interstate 15 and State Route 76 is one of those “transportation nodes,” where development has been anticipated for more than 30 years, Bonelli said.

Some infrastructure was installed years ago when Hewlett-Packard planned a project there. A dead-end overpass locals call “the bridge to nowhere” was built over the freeway in the mid-1980s. It connects to the area known as Pankey Ranch with a fire station on the west side of the I-15.

About two years ago, developers began the permitting process required to break ground on their projects, including housing developments with upwards of 1,800 living units, a community college satellite campus, businesses to support the campus and homes, a renewable energy facility and a quarry. A few miles east on SR76, Pala Casino plans a major expansion. Also in the mix are a landfill, which began the permitting process 18 years ago, and another quarry at the San Diego-Riverside County line.

While approval of most of these projects is still a few years away, it is never too early to think about the additional traffic they would create.

Traffic today

According to Bonelli, each weekday morning about 30,000 vehicles in Southwest Riverside County hit I-15 at the same time, heading south toward San Diego County. By the time they reach SR76, some leave the commute – but others join, adding an additional 20,000 drivers who are heading south.

Next on their trip is State Route 78 at Escondido, where other commuters are merging onto the I-15 South, and traffic either stops or crawls. By the time the drivers hit Rancho Penasquitos, the number of vehicles on the roadway has doubled to about 60,000, causing traffic to inch along. Some television traffic reports now include an estimation of how many minutes it will take a driver to make it from the SR78/I-15 merge to where traffic begins moving again sometimes past Poway Road.

One little incident can cause a major traffic jam that will delay commuters even more. It’s a jungle out there, most commuters will say, but they know development is inevitable.

Here is a look into the future of housing and traffic on the I-15 corridor and where the projects stand in the permitting process.

Housing developments

Three companies, Pardee, Passarelle and Pappas – also known as “The Three Ps” – are planning developments on the property at the crux of SR76 and I-15 known as Pankey Ranch.

Pardee’s project is Meadowood, Passarelle has Campus Park and the Pappas family is still waiting to determine what sort of project they will present.

Passarelle is naming its project Campus Park, because along with a satellite campus of Palomar College, 995 homes are planned, along with a small town center to support them, which may include a sandwich shop, a small market and the like.

“We are on track to continue the entitlement process and [environmental impact reports (EIRs)], et cetera,” said Chris Brown, spokesman for Passarelle. “We are working with the college. We see them as a development partner. We’re excited about that as hopefully as they are.”

Breaking ground is still two or three years away. Brown said there will have to be road improvements to SR76, off- and on-ramp improvements and better access to I-15.

Meadowood is preparing to submit its EIRs to the public in the fall, said David Sibbet of Latitude 33 Planning and Engineering. According to Sibbet, that means the public will have the opportunity to take a look the reports and write comments.

The Fallbrook Community Planning Group [FCPG] has played a role in limiting the number of homes in the project and it is still chipping away. Originally, Meadowood was to have 1,244 homes. Now, 861 are planned.

“[The FCPG’s] last proposal was 650 units in October,” said Sibbet. “Some of the things they have proposed, we have implemented, like mixing in one-story homes and limiting our building to two stories.”

“You work out things, you problem-solve and you try to get as close as possible to reach common ground with all interested parties,” he added.

Despite the rosy outlook of the projects’ spokesmen, there are still a few other obstacles to overcome, such as providing water to the homes and businesses they hope to bring to the area. Currently, the San Luis Rey Municipal Water District (SLRMWD) does not have enough water to provide its proposed future population, so they will have to rely on imported water.

On February 22 the San Diego County Water Authority voted to deny a request from the SLRMWD for membership in the county authority and advised them to try to be annexed into a neighboring water district such as Rainbow or Valley Center. This could mean two things.

If members of the SLRMWD, of which there are approximately 30, decide they don’t want to be annexed, they could stop the development process. If they don’t mind being annexed, it is just another little bump on the road to bringing the development to life unless neighboring water districts have objections.

The Local Agency Formation Commission has the issue under advisement and is keeping an eye on the developments.

Finally, on the southeastern quadrant of the SR76/I-15 junction is Lake Rancho Viejo. This housing development has been around for a while and continues its build-out of a total of 285 homes.

Palomar College

When voters passed $694 million bond measure Proposition M in November, it was the signal to begin a building boom for Palomar College.

“With state-matching money, the college expects to be carrying close to a $1 billion building program for the next 15 years,” said Mark Oggel, director of communications for the college. Included in that building flurry will be the satellite campus slated for an 82-acre plot at the northeast quadrant of the property at the SR76/I-15 interchange.

“With the bond measure, the college will proceed to make the purchase,” Oggel said. “The cost would be $50 million. We will start small with three buildings and over time add to it so that it eventually becomes a full satellite campus.”

He said the buildings will be in the center of the property, with parking and athletic fields on the side.

“Nothing is going to happen right away,” said Kelley Hudson-MacIsaac, facilities manager for the college. She said it will be at least two to three years before ground is broken and that depends on the results of an EIR, if there are mitigations involved, off-site improvements like the widening of roads and intersection improvement.

When the doors open on the school, she said, between 4,000 and 5,000 students are expected to attend.

“We have more than that coming from the Fallbrook area, anyway,” she added. “We have close to 5,000 students from that zip code attending classes at the high school or here in San Marcos.”

Renewable energy facility

Fallbrook resident Tony Arand says he is on track in the permitting process to bring a 90-megawatt renewable energy facility to 150 acres on the south side of SR76 east of I-15.

If approved, it will use a process called “gasification combustion,” which cleanly burns green waste and wood, to produce electricity. Not to be confused with “incineration,” during which refuse is burned in lieu of burial in a landfill, gasification would not degrade the quality of the environment, result in long-term or cumulative impacts or have substantial adverse effects on human beings, either directly or indirectly, say experts.

The city of Vista has already given Arand all the permits needed to finish construction of a similar facility within its borders and operate for an initial 18 months. If within that time the company can meet air quality requirements, it will later be given an extension for a total of five years.

Palomar aggregate

A quarry is planned for SR76 about 1.5 miles east of I-15.

“We hope to break ground this summer on that project,” said Gary Johnson, aggregate manager for Granite Construction, which bought the interest in the quarry from Palomar Aggregate several years ago.

“We’re finishing up habitat mitigations,” he said. “Once we get that wrapped up and the right of way, then we’ll be able to break ground. The first thing we are going to do is widen and straighten a 1.3-mile section of [SR76].” After eight to 10 months of road construction, the plant will be ready to run.

Johnson said there was litigation at one point but that it has been resolved.

The quarry will be on the east side of Rosemary’s Mountain on SR76, 1.3 miles east of Pankey Road. The plant is expected to process an average of 1.1 million tons of stone a year for 20 years and will include production of asphalt.

Each day, the plant will be responsible for about 200 vehicles on surrounding highways over a 10-hour period, according to Johnson.

“Even with this facility opening, it will only meet 15 percent of <aggregate> demand in northern San Diego County,” he said. “Right now it is imported from Corona, San Bernardino and Irwindale in LA County. There is a severe shortage…in the county right now.”

Pala Casino expansion

Pala Casino officials plan to expand the floor space of its casino by 70,000 square feet, add 1,500 additional parking spaces and 50 hotel rooms and increase the size of its spa. The gambling floor will expand by 20 tables in the poker room and 250 slot machines. The expansion will cause an increase in traffic to about 1,100 vehicles a day driving on SR76.

SANDAG’s Garry Bonelli said the improvement of SR76 to accommodate the added traffic cuts both ways. Some believe it will ruin their rural atmosphere, while others fear that if the roadway is not widened, it could be dangerous to drivers.

There are plans currently being reviewed that would make parts of SR76 a scenic highway. A decision will be announced by county officials later this year.

Gregory Canyon Landfill

In 1994, San Diego county residents voted to place a proposed dump in Gregory Canyon.

The landfill would cover 1,770 acres off SR76 on the back side of Rosemary’s Mountain, located on Couzer Canyon Road about three miles east of I-15 and two miles southwest of the community of Pala. It would have a life of about 30 years and the capacity of 46 million cubic yards, or 31 million tons.

Positioned on the western slope of Gregory Canyon, the landfill would be adjacent to San Luis Rey River; therein lies the controversy over its placement.

The members of environmental group RiverWatch are concerned about the environment and the possible contamination of the underground aquifer that provides water for people as far away as Oceanside. While proponents believe that state-of-the-art liners put under the dump will keep contaminates from leaching into the aquifer, liners have failed in areas on Camp Pendleton recently.

RiverWatch, the Pala Band of Mission Indians and the city of Oceanside filed suit against the project and Gregory Canyon Ltd., resulting in a revised EIR.

RiverWatch has been fighting the landfill for 18 years. The average time for permitting a landfill is about 10 years.

Litigation is expected to continue for the unforeseeable future.

Liberty Quarry

There has been a battle from the beginning of this proposed project. Just north of the San Diego County Line near the settlement of Rainbow, the 155-acre Liberty Quarry will be positioned just west of the I-15 near Rainbow Valley Boulevard.

If approved, it is expected to generate more than 270 million tons of granite rock – used in making concrete and asphalt materials – for approximately 75 years. The aggregate would be excavated, crushed and screened on-site.

The quarry, which would be responsible for 700 truck trips a day on surrounding highways, is currently undergoing an intensive environmental review process in Riverside County.

Residents from both sides of the county line have kicked up a vociferous protest over the project. They say the quarry would cause more traffic, more noise and air pollution to the Temecula, Pala and Rainbow communities and infringe upon the Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve, where San Diego State University (SDSU) conducts numerous experiments.

On March 6, out of concern for residents’ quality of life and its lack of control over regulation, the Temecula City Council began the process of pulling land out from underneath the quarry.

The council resolved to apply for annexation of 4,600 acres of land on the city’s southwest border. Granite Construction had applied to use that area as part of the quarry. Council members say they will use the land for ecological research in partnership with SDSU at the reserve.

However, proponents see it differently. A new economic impact study conducted by Inland economist John Husing shows that Liberty Quarry would save taxpayers more than $32 million in reduced air quality mitigation and highway maintenance costs and pump more than $150 million into the local economy.

Additionally, it would erase more than 16.5 million truck-miles from Riverside County’s roadways every year, and air quality experts estimate that almost 115,000 pounds of harmful air emissions would be eliminated yearly, saving California taxpayers $27.3 million in emission reduction costs. Taxpayers simultaneously receive the additional benefit of saving $5.3 million per year in highway maintenance costs with the removal of these trucks over the 75-year project life.

The final decision about the annexation will be made by the Local Agency Formation Commission.

More traffic in the future

Most commuters will say that traffic is bad enough now, but looking into the future, things could get much worse. With the addition of the proposed projects – beginning with Liberty Quarry on the southern end of Temecula, then, a few miles down the road, the projects at the SR76/I-15 intersection, including the college, housing developments, businesses and another quarry – a new housing development is also in the planning stages.

Named Merriam Mountain by developer Stonegate, the project proposes 2,391 housing units just off the I-15 near Deer Springs Road, across from Champagne Boulevard.

Planners like Garry Bonelli are trying to stay ahead of the curve by thinking ahead. During the next five years, about $1.7 billion will be spent to add additional lanes to Interstate 15.

“By the year 2030 we will have added an additional one million people, bringing the population of San Diego County to four million,” said Bonelli. “We will have added 350,000 homes and 620,000 jobs.”

If things go according to plan, he continued, there will be additional transit opportunities by bus or train and even the Automated Highway System, in which a driver enters the freeway, takes his or her hands off the wheel and is transported automatically to the correct off-ramp.

In the meantime, developers will need to take part in cumulative traffic studies so their projects can help pave the way for the future.

Latitude 33’s David Sibbet said the county’s main concern at the moment is the traffic on State Route 76. There is talk of new on- and off-ramps and even a new interchange north of the existing intersection at I-15.

Each person involved in project development on SR76 will contribute his or her share to mitigate the affects of the added traffic, said Sibbet. “We had to coordinate with many people on this issue because there is so much going on out there.”


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