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Residents express concern over SR76 design - CalTrans claims northern and southern route alternatives being studied equally; environmental reports delayed until July 1

As citizens, agencies, and engineers await the completion and release of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement/Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIS/DEIR) pertaining to the State Route 76 highway improvement project segment from South Mission Road to Interstate 15, which has now been delayed until July1, a group of local residents say they fear that the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) already favors the northern alternative of the two being studied.

“We think the southern route is only being put forth by CalTrans as a ‘red herring,’” says Monty Voigt, of the citizen-based 76 Action Committee, who feels political clout will affect the choice for the SR76 realignment project. “We are concerned because we feel people have been speaking out, but not being listened to.”

Fellow committee member Donna Kerwin says she got the feeling one alternative was in favor already over the other when she and others attended County Supervisor Bill Horn’s State of the County address recently in Vista.

“[Horn] saw us demonstrating outside and standing at the back of the room when he gave his address, and said, ‘We know you aren’t going to be happy,’” says Kerwin.

While the decision regarding the routing of SR76 will rest with the State of California, 76 Action Committee members say they are suspicious of underlying political pressures.

“We think there is some sort of agreement being coordinated between CalTrans, Supervisor Horn, and the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) and it all has to do with the San Luis Rey River Park project,” said Kerwin. “And that’s really not appropriate.”

Horn’s chief of staff, Joan Wonsley, said, “[The Supervisor] was referring to the widening in general, not to any particular alignment of the highway. He understands the County has no jurisdiction over the alignment.”

Mark Phelan, CalTrans’ SR76 project manager, also underscores the fact that the project is a state one.

“I did not attend that meeting and I can’t speak for the Supervisor, but I will tell you his opinion is no different than anyone else’s opinion.”

Phelan insists that both the northern and southern alternatives are being considered equally.

“The two alternatives are being studied to an equal level of depth in every study that is performed,” says Phelan. However, it’s no secret that the southern route would carry a higher price tag.

“There is a big difference in cost,” confirms Phelan. “Improvement of the existing northern route would cost between $200-225 million; the southern alternative would be $300-325 million.”

When asked if the northern route is being favored due to the lower cost, Phelan says, “No it is not.”

Phelan says there are many considerations that come into play when the final route selection is made.

“There are numerous agencies involved, including US Fish & Wildlife, Calif. Dept. of Fish & Game, Army Corps of Engineers, CalTrans, the Federal Highway Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency,” says Phelan. “Our big issue is biological; second is cultural (Native American resources); then noise and visual.”

Phelan claims he is just as interested as everyone else to review the environmental impact information when it is made available. Its release is expected by July 1.

“When we get [the DEIS/DEIR] we will show the result to the agencies and the public,” says Phelan. “I haven’t seen the final draft document. We did not go into this portion of the project with a preferred alternative.”

Phelan says the public will get an opportunity to air their views when the reports are made available.

“After the document is published in the federal register, there will be a 45-day public comment period,” he says. “Two to three weeks into that period we will schedule a public meeting, probably at the Bonsall Community Center.”

76 Action Committee member Donna Kerwin says she has concerns whether all residents being affected by the project will be notified properly of the meeting so they can plan on attending.

“Residents will be notified in several ways,” says Phelan. “We will post advertisements about the meeting in the [Fallbrook/Bonsall] Village News, North County Times, San Diego Union, and probably also one in the Spanish language circular. Residents can also sign up to be on our electronic mailing list at http://www.keepsandiegomoving.com. We will be posting the meeting on the SR76 page on that site.”

Once the preferred alternative has been selected, Phelan says it will take “about a year” to develop the final design and engineering plan.

Voigt says the 76 Action Committee’s greatest concerns regarding the final design revolve around the numerous roadways that connect to the existing SR76 from South Mission to Interstate 15 and the resulting emergency access and evacuation ease in the event of another catastrophic fire, such as the 2007 Rice Fire. Concerns also include emergency response time for medical and traffic accident incidents; ease of access to the future San Luis Rey Regional Park; less noise and particulate pollution, and the preservation of the rural community character.

Phelan says input has already been solicited from North County Fire Protection District on response times pertaining to the proposed alternatives.

“They didn’t give an opinion of the two alternatives; they primarily focused their concern along the existing (northern) route and what type of access they would need for the existing roadways that wouldn’t connect to the new route,” says Phelan.

“One example is Calle Del Vuelta; we are trying to design something in there to make sure that in an emergency situation there will be full access,” he explains. “That is something that is a design feature. People have expressed concerns and we will address them.”

The committee also hopes that things like traffic ease during the construction process is taken into account, and that reasonable access to established businesses along the highway is part of the plan.

Voigt also questions the validity of the traffic volume information CalTrans is working with.

“We think the traffic studies that have been conducted are out of date because they were done from 2005 to 2007,” says Voigt.

“ definitely needs to be revisited,” agrees Kerwin. “The traffic from the casinos in the area has increased, and we know we are going to have a new Palomar College campus located at I-15 and 76 that supposedly is being designed to serve 7,000 students.”

Because an area of brush clearing extends beyond the intersection of South Mission and SR76, some residents feel the work on the stretch to Interstate 15 has already begun. Phelan says that is not the case.

“Our current 76 project work (Melrose to South Mission) extends to Sweetgrass Lane in Bonsall,” explains Phelan. “The work and brush clearing beyond the South Mission/76 intersection is simply being done to tie our new highway into the existing highway, because it will go from three lanes back down to one lane in each direction and we need about 2,000 feet to do that.”

Meanwhile, the 76 Action Committee continues to collect signatures of residents in agreement that the southern route alternative would be the best choice.

“We have 2,200 signatures so far,” said Kerwin, “and we’re still going.”

Phelan assures residents their voices will be heard through the public review process when the draft environmental studies are released this summer.

“In my 25 years in this industry, this is probably the most challenging corridor I’ve ever seen,” says Phelan. “It’s because there are so many rich resources there.”

Phelan also explains that the current plan underway is “just the big, footprint picture.”

“We don’t have a final decision; we haven’t begun designing the final aspects of the project yet,” he says. But he acknowledges there are many people and agencies involved, making it a complex situation.

“There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen on this,” says Phelan. “We knew that going in; we knew the challenges. If it were simple, we’d already be done with it.”

Given the various concerns, the environmental issues, and the cost factor, the project continues to be one many residents are watching.

“We just want it done right the first time they do it,” said Voigt.

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