To the surprise of everyone except the citizens of Del Mar and Carmel Valley, San Diego's most eagerly awaited east-west freeway connection, state Route 56 connecting Interstates 5 and 15, has Gone Gap two years before it opens.
Like the merchandise hawked by the venerable yuppie clothes chain, whose stock plummeted 75 percent this quarter because of consumer distaste for icky clothes designs, a new Caltrans study confirms that the six-mile Route 56 is expensive and will not fit its most important customers, adults who work.
The Gap in this case refers not only to the obvious empty space on Caltrans maps between Route 56 and I-5 headed north at both ends where direct connectors should lie, but between early traffic demand projections suggesting that these connectors are not needed until 2020 and the reality of today's locally generated congestion and tomorrow's traffic from approved planned development.
Part of the reason for the Route 56 snafu lies in today's freeway traffic management planning perspective that views Route 56 as a rush-hour vehicle holding pen to keep traffic flowing on I-5, functioning, or more accurately malfunctioning, in much the same way as Garnet Avenue and other arterial streets connecting communities to freeways.
Caltrans officials tell us that I-5 peak-hour congestion is so bad now that the only way to handle new Route 56 commuters is to dribble them on in metered doses, which will back traffic up half way down the six-mile route during rush hours. Inevitably, intrepid commuters, especially those who want to head north on I-5, will exit on local streets and aim toward the Del Mar Heights Road on-ramp, running head-long into kids navigating to several local schools.
But, the really big gap meets drivers who wish to head north on I- 5 at El Camino Real, where they must exit, crawl through several signals and turn right to enter the I-5 on-ramp which is, yes Virginia, metered.
Like 13 other missing freeway-to-freeway moves in the region, Route 56 was planned without direct connectors heading north on both ends. The connectors were left out of the plans largely because of cost, which when added to the $140 million already budgeted for the midsection would bring the six-mile project closer to $350 million, and the interesting idea that Carmel Valley streets were master planned to handle both local and new regional traffic spill-over from Route 56 until 2020.
And so, Carmel Valley's plight took regional significance -- no direct connectors, no smart growth in the north city.
This new regional urgency drove the just-completed seven-month Caltrans Value Analysis Study on the Route 56 connector problem, conducted with the participation of the SR56 Task Force, area planning boards and city and SANDAG engineering staff.
The study group is recommending a serious cost effective program to city officials and regional agencies that would bring a direct Caltrans standard northbound connector from Route 56 to I-5, city street improvements to allow efficient traffic flow from southbound I-5 heading east on Route 56, and transit options for the Route 56 corridor within the next six years.
A cooperative effort between Caltrans and city traffic engineers to design interim improvements to local streets and freeway access ramps in Carmel Valley must also start immediately so that they are ready for Route 56's opening in 2004. With the completion of the Caltrans Route 56 connector study, city and regional officials have a two-year heads-up to work together on the problem before Route 56 opens for business.
Doing nothing is Going Gap in a big way -- Route 56 is already expensive, and it will really look bad without serious redesign at Carmel Valley.
Lisa Ross Chairs the SR56 Task Force. She can be reached at www.lisaross.com.