'There has to be a better system," says Tommie McMullen, who has chosen to drive eight more miles to work in order to cut 15 minutes off the time it takes him to get there. When he started working at Geico Direct in Poway three years ago, McMullen took the 54 freeway from his home in Spring Valley to the 805 to the 15 and got off at the Scripps Poway Parkway exit. Today, he takes a back route, first using surface streets until he reaches the 125 at Spring Street. The 125 brings him north to the 8, which he takes east to its junction with 67 in El Cajon. He drives north on the 67 through Lakeside toward Ramona and turns left into Poway at Scripps Poway.
The problem with the 805, which offers the more direct route, says McMullen, is that "right when you get on, near Plaza Boulevard, it's a parking lot. You can't go anywhere. You have that for, probably, the next three miles down the road. All of a sudden, traffic speeds up, and you're wondering why the traffic slowed down in the first place. Now people are cutting you off, and they act like they want to run you over. Then, once you get on the other side of the 8, the traffic backs up again. Because of that, I was always late to work. It's horrible."
The 805 coming north out of the South Bay is known as one of the most congested areas on San Diego County's freeways in the morning, but it is hardly the worst. Garry Bonelli, communications director for the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), names the southbound I-15 in North County and southbound I-5 before its junction with the 805 as the two worst. Both areas see more than 260,000 vehicles per day.
Bonelli helped write the 39-page "Mobility 2030," a preliminary draft summarizing SANDAG's latest regional transportation plan. The $41 billion plan has been in the works for more than six months and should receive final approval in February or March of next year. A major fact it addresses is that San Diego County will grow in population from the current 2.8 million people to nearly 4 million by the target date. "From SANDAG's perspective," says Bonelli, "we think [the roads] can accommodate the next million people. But if something is going to be done about our future growth and traffic congestion, now, more than ever, is the time to do it.
"Currently we're in a crisis mode. But we hope to have a robust transit system in place by the year 2030. That means you'll have some real choices to get on a transit system when you want, it will go where you want to go, and you're going to have transfer stations as frequently as every five minutes. So we're trying to make transit competitive with the car."
Today is another story. According to Bonelli, a woman living in Escondido would require two hours to get to her job in Kearny Mesa on the public transportation available today. She can do much better than that by driving alone on the I-15, even if it requires an hour or so in stop-and-go traffic.
A few alternatives are already in place. Cynde Durnford-Branecke has discovered an express commuter bus that takes her from Escondido to her job in downtown San Diego when she doesn't have an evening class at National University. On school days, she fights the morning traffic on I-15 with thousands of other single-occupancy vehicles.
"I never get out of second gear until I get to Rancho Bernardo," she says. "I start in San Marcos on the 78, but I usually take the shortcuts, and I don't get on the 15 until I get to Felicita. That way I bypass a lot of the Escondido traffic, which takes out about 15 minutes."
The traffic in Escondido is especially bad, says Durnford-Branecke. "Bumper to bumper, five miles an hour. All the Temecula people hit Escondido, and traffic comes to a screeching halt until you get to Rancho Bernardo.
"Felicita is right when it starts to move, and when you get to the North County Fair, it opens up a bit. Then comes a bottleneck because of Lake Hodges. Everybody has to get on the highway at Lake Hodges, including bicycles, because there's no other way around it. It bottlenecks again when you get down to Carmel Mountain."
Bonelli says that SANDAG views I-15 congestion less as a traffic problem than a housing problem. In the 2030 plan, land use is identified as one of "four components of mobility." "You cannot build your way out of congestion," he says, referring to freeway construction. Another brand-new lane in each direction on I-15 would reduce congestion only temporarily. Word would get out, according to Bonelli, that a faster commute is in place for people who live in the I-15 corridor, and more people would move there. Home buyers are already tempted by the lower housing costs offered by such communities in southwest Riverside County as Temecula and Winchester. An important strategy in the SANDAG program for reducing traffic congestion is to plan land use that would bring the places people live and where they work closer together.
But development of the transportation network cannot wait for land use to be improved. "Systems development" and "systems management" are also components of Mobility 2030. CalTrans implements most of SANDAG's decisions to develop and upgrade our region's freeway system. The California agency is planning major upgrades of I-5 and I-15 in North County and is already engaged in a number of smaller projects throughout the San Diego region.
Tom Nipper, spokesman for CalTrans in San Diego County, describes the I-15 project as building managed lanes in the freeway's median, which will give priority to carpools, vanpools, buses, and a new "trolley on wheels." The four-lane system "would have a movable barrier in the middle, like on the Coronado Bridge. That way we can alter the number of lanes going north and south to match the demand. The first section will be between 56 and Via Rancho Parkway. We're going to start construction late this year or early next year. That will bring some relief to 15.