Big Goals for OC Roadways

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Main News Photo

(Orange County Register)

Continued work and future project planning on major freeways and toll roads throughout Orange County promise to make 2022 another busy year in transportation activity.

Construction should ramp up on the 405 improvement project — entering its last full year before completion — and crews will continue making headway on the last two-thirds of work to be done on the 5 Freeway widening between the 73 and El Toro Road.

After years of planning, a project to widen a key stretch of the 55 Freeway should begin midway through the year, launching a four-year construction process.

And the OC streetcar, connecting Santa Ana and Garden Grove, will continue to see progress before the vehicles themselves get delivered to Orange County in late 2022 or early 2023.

“It’s going to be a busy year overall,” said Darrell Johnson, CEO of the Orange County Transportation Authority, which oversees many of the projects.

Meanwhile, the Transportation Corridor Agencies, which operate the county’s toll roads, have a handful of projects in the pipeline, the “No. 1 priority” being improvements links between 241 the 91 toll roads, said TCA CEO Samuel Johnson.

Before the year’s end, five more bridges over the 405 Freeway that are part of the $1.9 billion project to widen a portion of the highway and improve 18 total overpasses should be finished and open to the public, OCTA’s Johnson said. Those five are at Westminster Boulevard, Golden West Street, Bolsa Chica Road, Ward Street and Fairview Road.

The remaining bridges are either under construction or finished.

The 16-mile project from Costa Mesa to Seal Beach adds one regular lane in each direction and another express lane to both sides. Existing carpool lanes will be turned into express lanes, bringing the total of tolled lanes to two in each direction. Johnson said the project is on budget and on track to be completed by fall of 2023.

Drivers taking the 5 Freeway in south Orange County likely will see crews working at several interchanges and bridges. “Major improvements” at the Avery Parkway, La Paz Road and El Toro Road interchanges will be a focal point in 2022, Johnson said, and “to a lesser degree, improvements and realignment of interchanges at Crown Valley, Oso and Alicia parkways.”

Good news for cyclists: The Aliso Creek Bikeway, which has been closed during construction work on a bridge over the riding path, is expected to reopen in the summer, Johnson said.

The $580 million 5 Freeway project that spans from the 73 to El Toro Road is expected to be finished in 2025.

Midyear, crews should break ground on the $474million project to widen a 4-mile stretch of the 55 Freeway between the 5 and the 405, Johnson said. With an anticipated completion date in 2026, the agency is in the process of bidding the project for construction contracts now. The work will include adding general purpose and carpool lanes to widen the freeway and help ease congestion.

Ddowntown Santa Ana will be a focal point of construction on the OC streetcar in 2022 as officials forge ahead amid delays, Johnson said. Though OCTA’s freeway projects “are on schedule and on budget,” the streetcar has hit some snags that have increased the price and pushed the anticipated opening to 2024.

Unforeseen holdups included the discovery of contaminated soil under the streets of Santa Ana that had to be safely removed and stored, uncovering of human remains on the project site that required sensitive extraction and the presence of unmarked utilities throughout the city, Johnson said.

“We’re not happy about the delay, but we also know that we need to deliver the project,” he said.

The budgeted cost of the streetcar project is now $509 million. The vehicles are currently under construction in northern California, and residents could start seeing them being tested here in 2023, Johnson said.

On Orange County’s toll roads, crews are working to shore up some final details — “dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s” — on the Oso Bridge project that connects the 241 with Los Patrones Parkway, which opened to the public last January, Johnson said.

North of that, the planned connector between the 241 to 91 is still in its design phase, and a final scheme should be ready to go by late 2022, he said. The project, which is funded by TCA and is being constructed in partnership with OCTA, Caltrans and the Riverside County Transportation Commission, will be a “fly over that goes from the 241 directly into the 91 Express, and vice versa,” Johnson said.

Caltrans is expected to go out for construction bids in 2023, and work could begin later that year, TCA spokesman Eugene Fields said.

“The models are showing that this project could provide significant travel time savings for folks in general purpose lanes on the 91 between State Route 55 and I-15,” Johnson said.

The anticipated $380 million price tag for the project — up from an initial estimate of $250 million — will be paid through toll revenue, Johnson said, with “no additional debt, no need for state dollars or federal dollars and more importantly, no need to use Measure M dollars.”

Long term, the TCA is planning projects on some toll roads to ease traffic. Work to widen the 241 between State Route 133 and 261, known as the Loma segment, is being planned now, and officials hope to have it completed by 2030, Johnson said.

On the 73, an estimated $40 million project that would improve medians and help traffic flow during peak periods at the Catalina View toll plaza will begin an initial environmental review in 2022, he said.

The pandemic affected revenues for the OCTA and the TCA in 2020, but both agencies said they rebounded in 2021. While fewer toll-paying drivers hit the roads in 2020, revenues bounced back in 2021 to pre-pandemic levels on the Foothill Eastern corridor, which includes the 241, 261 and 133 toll roads, TCA’s Johnson said. The 73 is on pace to get there, too, he noted.

Orange County’s half-cent Measure M sales tax collected for transportation improvements was down 4.3% in fiscal 2020, from $332 million in 2019 to $318 million during the same period in 2020, OCTA spokesman Eric Carpenter said. But the first half of 2021 saw strong comeback, leading to “our highest sales tax year ever for Measure M,” increasing revenue by 8.6%, to $345 million, Johnson said.

Though transit ridership dropped during the pandemic, and OCTA cut back on some routes and staffing levels, buses are carrying now about 70% of the riders they did before COVID-19, Johnson said.

“We’ve recovered to a certain degree,” he said. “But we’re taking a really hard look at sort of what should the future of that bus system be? So should we restructure it? Are the ridership trends and patterns, are they going to be different in a post-COVID environment?”

The agency is considering those questions in a study it will conduct through 2022 to examine potential changes to the transit system. Transportation officials will seek out public input this year and plan to compile a report for OCTA’s board of directors in late 2022, Johnson said.

“I think now everybody’s trying to figure out, what does a transit system look like in a post-COVID environment?” Johnson said. “Does it work the same? Are there more online activities for community colleges and schools? Is the job structure the same? And I think we don’t know that yet.”

Category: Orange County, transportation, Greater Irvine Chamber, Leaders Circle, Transportation Corridor Agencies