With gas prices hovering around $4.50 a gallon of regular, it appears some drivers are beginning to modify their travel patterns.
"At $3-a-gallon, we said 'gee, that's a lot of money, but we can handle that,' now pushing $5-a-gallon, a lot of people have said 'we've had enough,'" said Solana Beach Councilman Joe Kellejian.
There has been a noticeable decrease in freeway traffic on Interstate 5. Traffic volume dropped an average four percent throughout the North County I-5 corridor, between Oceanside and the I-5/I-805 merge, in April compared with April 2007. That equated to more than 60-minute decrease in rush hour, good news for commuters still on the road.
"We are not sure if it's a temporary drop or a continuing trend," said Caltrans I-5 project manager Aturo Jacobo.
A significant drop was observed in the southbound lanes at Del Mar Heights Road in the month-over-month comparison. This April, 96,675 average daily trips were counted compared with 113,111 last April - a 15 percent decrease. Northbound traffic dropped only 1,110 trips, from 96,630 in April 2007 to 95,520 this April, a one percent decrease.
Where those drivers have gone is hard to say exactly, Jacobo said. More drivers could be carpooling, minimizing their trips or taking other forms of transportation.
Some may have headed for public transportation. Ridership on the Coaster train increased 13 percent to 153,000 riders in April 2008, compared with 135,000 riders in April 2007. Total Coaster ridership increased 8 percent to 1.65 million riders last fiscal year, from July 1, 2007 to June 30, 2008.
"We know if people can, they are looking to incorporate trips on transit than spend money on gasoline," said Tom Kelleher, spokesman for North County Transit District, which operates the Coaster.
Of the 10 riders surveyed by this newspaper at the Solana Beach station one Thursday morning, most had been riding the Coaster for many, many years, but they said they had noticed the trains were more crowded recently.
"Even when gas was a little less, it really does help, and why put the wear and tear on the car?" said Wayne Seidel, a Del Mar resident who's taken the Coaster for five years.
Even just around town, several residents said they are making a more concerted effort to consolidate trips or walk to save gas.
"With prices so high, it makes me think twice about my regular routines," said Solana Beach resident Ren Lee, watching her son play at Fletcher Cove Park. "I used to drive everywhere, now I'm walking more with the stroller."
In other traffic-related news, the environmental impact report for the proposed Interstate 5 widening project has been postponed again, until early 2009, in order to complete additional technical studies, said project manager Aturo Jacobo.
"We are doing additional studies to address some concerns of the Coastal Commission," Jacobo said.
The environmental document is addressing projects throughout the 30-mile corridor, including widening I-5 through Solana Beach up to 14 lanes. Many Solana Beach residents have expressed concern about the impacts such a project could have on the community.
In light of the current situation, with high gas prices, concerns about reducing carbon emissions, and fewer cars on the road, some residents are calling for the project to be reevaluated.
"I think all the assumptions that went into the project have changed," said Solana Beach resident Steve Goetsch. "I don't think we can afford to go ahead with something just because they made up their minds seven or eight years ago."
Jacobo said the observed decline is " not a significant drop in terms of 2030 planning," but that they would continue monitoring traffic patterns.
Lomas Santa Fe Drive Closure
Also, residents should take note of partial and full closures of Lomas Santa Fe Drive at Interstate 5 coming up the next two weekends.
During the day on Sat., July 26 and Sun., July 27, Lomas Santa Fe Drive at Interstate 5 will be reduced to one lane in each direction. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m., all lanes will be closed to traffic. The Northbound I-5 onramp may be closed all weekend.
Same thing for the following weekend. During the day on Sat., Aug. 2 and Sun., Aug. 3, Lomas Santa Fe Drive at Interstate 5 will be reduced to one lane in each direction. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m., all lanes will be closed to traffic. The Northbound I-5 onramp may be closed all weekend.
During the week in between, from July 28 to Aug. 1, all lanes on Lomas Santa Fe Drive at Interstate 5 will be open to traffic. Eastbound drivers will have to make a U-Turn at Santa Helena to access the Northbound I-5 onramp. Trucks will have to use detours.