Connectors chosen as preferred option to link SR-56 and I-5

After more than a decade of study, Caltrans completed and released the Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) for the Interstate-5-SR 56 Interchange Project in June, selecting the phased direct connector option as the preferred alternative. The project will link westbound SR-56 with I-5 north, as well as I-5 south and SR-56 east with flyover bridge structures.

The 1,800-page final document dropping in the middle of summer was deemed a “stealth” move by Dennis Ridz, chair of the Torrey Pines Community Planning Board and a longtime opponent of the direct connector alternative.

“Caltrans only published this final report to its own website and a few elected officials. No notice was given to residents or companies along I-5 or SR-56 within Torrey Pines or Carmel Valley,” said Ridz, noting the document has 82 design changes since the draft EIR was released in 2012. “No one knows about this project.”

The proposed new SR-56 west to I-5 north connector at its highest point is 33 feet above the Carmel Valley Road northbound on-ramp, and the south to east connector at its highest point is 45 feet above I-5. No home or business relocations will be required for the connector alternative but there will be 27 partial residential acquisitions and 12 partial business acquisitions.

“They shifted the connector so it saves the Shell gas station but, to do that, it moves the highway closer to homes in Torrey Pines,” Ridz said, noting homes there will lose parts of the flat areas of their backyards. “Trucks that go by can wave.”

As part of the project, the Del Mar Heights Road interchange will also be reconstructed — the bridge will be replaced and the northbound and southbound on- and off-ramps would be realigned. The El Camino Real overcrossing will also be widened to accommodate the west-to-north connector ramp.

According to Arturo Jacobo, Caltrans project manager for the I-5 North Coast Corridor, the City of San Diego, SANDAG and Caltrans have been studying the I-5 and SR-56 interchange since 2000 in an effort to improve local and regional traffic.

“This regional interchange connects two of San Diego’s most critical north-to-south and east-to-west freeways,” Jacobo said. “Caltrans has performed an extensive alternatives analysis process, which was designed to solicit input from local officials and community members on the benefits, costs and impacts of the various transportation options, so that a preferred alternative could be identified.”

Jacobo said through community participation, project alternatives were evaluated as part of the Draft EIR. After the draft was released, Caltrans held a public meeting in 2012 and gathered additional public comments, which were incorporated into the final document.

Ridz said the release of the final EIR came as a big surprise to him as he hadn’t heard anything from Caltrans for five years after serving on a steering committee back in 2012 with members of the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board.

“We spent five to eight years with this thing on a steering committee and I thought it was a dead issue,” echoed Carmel Valley Community Planning Board Chair Frisco White at a July board meeting. “Now it’s rearing its ugly head again.”

Ridz said the FEIR’s 82 design changes should have been brought before both of the planning boards that have been involved with the project since 2004. Both boards had supported a less impactful alternative to make the missing connections, preferring a “flyover” from west to north and an upgrade to the Carmel Valley Road connection to the 56.

Ridz said his board invited Caltrans to its Sept. 14 meeting to discuss the connector alternative but, according to Ridz, they refused to attend and said it would be “unproductive.”

Jacobo said Caltrans did not receive an invitation to a public meeting — he said Caltrans has offered to both the Torrey Pines planning board and District 1 the opportunity to meet with their technical and legal team to answer any questions they may have.

The public has 150 days from the release of the document (early-to-mid November) to file legal action against Caltrans.

Finalizing the EIR is an important milestone for the project and moves it one step closer to final design and, ultimately, the start of construction. However, the $300 million project is not funded for final design or construction. Once funding is identified, the project could be built in phases — the potential start date was projected as 2035.

“SANDAG updates the Regional Transportation Plan every four years. The update and the discussion on regional priorities is done in an open forum with community and elected official input,” Jacobo said regarding the project’s timing. “So it is up to the process to move it up, keep it, or delay it even further.”

The Torrey Pines community has long raised its voice about the “damage” they believe the connectors will do to their community. The FEIR includes comments against the project that go back 12 years: “The plan will create a dark, noisy, nasty concrete jungle that will darken the entrance to both Torrey Pines State Reserve and to Carmel Valley.”

The FEIR acknowledges that the imposition of “two new highly visible” connector bridge structures will strongly affect the views from the road and to the road.

Overall the project would result in a “negative visual change” due to large retaining walls, extensive soundwalls, loss of median planting on SR-56 and a general increase in the expanse of asphalt and concrete surfacing, according to the FEIR.

On the hill adjacent to I-5, Portofino Circle will be realigned and reconstructed, as well as portions of the common area for the Del Mar Villas condominiums. As a result of the project, 27 of the 71 on-street parking spaces will be eliminated and four off-street parking spots will be created. There will be 17 retaining walls constructed and views from the interior yards will be preserved by using a transparent soundwall.

Where the proposed connector is adjacent to the southernmost Del Mar Villas property on Portofino Circle will be the greatest amount of visual change.

“It is important to note that the direct connector would not be visible from most residences along Portofino Circle. Only four units are anticipated to have a view of the direct connectors,” the FEIR states.

While the project will require partial right-of-way acquisitions of 27 residential properties, the parcel lot sizes would not be reduced to substandard sizes.

In addition to the “dramatic” changes to these Torrey Pines residential neighborhoods, the planning board also has concerns about an increase in truck traffic and air pollution, particularly on students at Del Mar Hills Academy as the connector ramp will run within 57 feet of the school’s main building.

“The ramp will be six feet below the sound wall exposing children playing on the basketball court and playing fields to toxic diesel fumes,” Ridz said. “Caltrans has stated they expect a 25 percent increase in truck traffic once the connector is finished.”

Per the FEIR, Caltrans will use several mitigation measures in an effort to improve the overall visual quality of the project, including landscaping, retaining wall color and form, and planted vines to provide relief from a large expanse of wall face.

The new, expanded Del Mar Heights bridge will “combine the simple form design of the highway level below and intriguing detail from above to connect with the surrounding communities.”

According to the document, features of the bridge may include a 12-foot sidewalk, light fixtures, sidewalk paving enhancements, seating alcoves and “artistic” elements to provide a comfortable pedestrian experience and better separation from traffic.

Ridz said in the five years it took to develop this final document, Caltrans should have made stronger attempts to inform the public, particularly neighboring residents, retail stores, commercial buildings and the Del Mar Union School District.

“Caltrans had five years to reach out and reestablish a dialogue with our communities and present their concepts for a direct connector solution that would not destroy our quality of life,” Ridz said. “Caltrans instead chose to support an alternative strongly rejected by both boards. It’s a sad state of affairs to destroy an entire community and we have no say.”

Jacobo disagreed that the public has not been involved in the process.

“The phased connectors alternative is the result of 12 years of public input,” Jacobo said. “And as a result, the project now includes minimum right-of-way impacts, no property relocations, no impacts to the wetlands or endangered plant and animal species, maintains access to Carmel Creek Road from eastbound SR-56 via the slip ramp, and a phased construction solution to minimize overall impacts to the community and align the project with anticipated funding.”

Information on the project can be found on keepsandiegomoving.com

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