ENCINITAS — Few people would argue that something needs to be done about the increasing traffic gridlock clogging the county’s main road arteries, specifically Interstate 5. However, at a town hall meeting on Sept. 13, the majority of attendees —approximately 350 residents — didn’t like the options that were presented.
“I came in to the meeting wanting to learn more about the expansion plans and now I want to know how to stop it,” said Eloise McKinley, an Encinitas resident. “From what I can see, they (Caltrans) are going to pave paradise and it’s still going to be a parking lot just like it is now.”
The meeting was organized by a handful of environmental groups including the San Diego Chapter of the Sierra Club, the citizens group Prevent Los
Angeles Gridlock Usurping Environment and Citizens Against Freeway Expansion, or CAFÉ as it is commonly known.
A common theme during the meeting was that the $4.5 billion freeway expansion plan is narrowly focused and does not consider alternative transportation methods. Plans call for widening the coastal freeway, which is now eight lanes in most places, by four or six lanes from La Jolla to Oceanside.
The draft environmental reports for the project — 9,000 pages of technical documents — were released in early July by the California Department of Transportation, which, in concert with the Federal Highway Administration, is in charge of the project. According to Caltrans officials, construction would not begin for roughly five years along the project’s southern end and would take approximately 15 years for work to start in Oceanside.
Some cities are joining the cautious residents, scientists and environmental groups urging an alternative solution to the massive widening project. Solana Beach Councilman Dave Roberts is the city’s representative on the North Coast Transit District board. In order to increase ridership on the Breeze (bus) and the Coaster train, he recommended the fares be lowered.
The measure passed unanimously on Sept. 16. Breeze fares will lower by 25 cents while Coaster fares will decrease by 10 to 22 percent. In addition, Solana Beach will now be in the so-called “North Coastal Zone” requiring just one fare to travel to Oceanside.
“Solana Beach has been proposing to move public transportation projects up before widening I-5,” Roberts said. “No matter how wide you make it (I-5), it’s going to be saturated fairly soon.” He also supports double tracking the existing trains so that they run more frequently.
While plans are moving forward for both the widening and the train expansion, full funding does not exist for either.
After several informational meetings with the community, Caltrans, in concert with federal officials, said it expects to decide this fall how large a project to build.
The expansion would then still require numerous approvals from state agencies and commissions.
“Those Caltrans meetings are a joke,” said Michele Boothe, who attended the meeting in Solana Beach in August. “There is no room for discussion, they have no intention to hear what the residents have to say.” Boothe said she was shocked when she heard the information from scientists at the Encinitas meeting. “How could Caltrans even think of doing this to us?” she exclaimed “It’s going to destroy our health and the environment to boot.”
Jack Hegenauer, retired biochemistry professor at UCSD, addressed the audience. “Ask yourself ‘Is this project going to make my life healthier, is it going to make my life quieter?’” Hegenauer has been a consultant with the city of Solana beach working on air quality and greenhouse gas emissions issues for several draft environmental reports. “We found that two-thirds of emissions come from the freeway,” he said. “The environmental impacts haven’t been revealed or mitigated by Caltrans.” The agency did not return multiple attempts for a comment.
“The main reason that CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) hasn’t been followed is because all they (Caltrans) have decided to do is lay concrete,” he said. “What they haven’t explored is effective rapid transit using the existing infrastructure.”
Critics of the expansion claim that noise and air pollution will increase and that the root cause of freeway congestion won’t be addressed. “This is just a 20-year solution at best and then where are you? The status quo of continuing to increase air pollution and noise pollution can’t continue,” Hegenauer said. “This is Southern California’s insanity of moving one person per car.”
“If you build it, they will come” was a common refrain during the meeting and in later interviews with residents and experts.
Bob Cotton gave a presentation on the visual impacts of freeway widening along the 27-mile proposed project I-5 corridor where beaches, canyons, lagoons and sandstone bluffs would be blocked by high noise reducing concrete walls.
Lisa Margolin-Feher, a Solana Beach resident who attended two of the expansion meetings said she went to get more information. “I have a view of the freeway,” she said. “I’m going to have a much bigger view unless this project is stopped.”
“I was stunned by what I heard and saw at the meeting,” she said. In particular, the sound walls were a shock. “Whose ideas are these?” Margolin-Feher asked. “These ‘solutions’ being proposed are going to be with us for the next 50 to 100 years. It’s going to forever change the landscape of this community.”
Like many residents, Margolin-Feher is taking action. “I’m writing to Caltrans to express my concerns,” she said. “I’m not going to sit by and watch this happen.”