Leaders praise benefits of new Interstate 5 carpool lanes in North County

Drivers heading north on Interstate 5 take advantage of the new carpool lane that opened Tuesday.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Second HOV lane is now up in the air, says Caltrans


Local leaders lauded the completion of nine new miles of Interstate 5 carpool lanes this week, saying the five-year construction project will pay off with quicker commutes, less pollution and happier North County residents.

The northbound HOV lane from Loma Santa Fe Drive in Solana Beach to Palomar Airport Road in Carlsbad opened Tuesday. Its southbound twin will open in a few more weeks after the paint striping, landscaping and other finishing touches are complete. The freeway now has five lanes in each direction.

“My residents are very happy about this project,” Solana Beach Mayor Lesa Heebner said at a ribbon-cutting in Encinitas. Pop-up tents sheltered the celebration from on-and-off rain at a hillside construction staging area overlooking the freeway, near Manchester Avenue and the San Elijo Lagoon.

The new lanes are part of a “suite” of related projects, Heebner said. They include improved railroad and freeway bridges across the lagoon, more bicycle and pedestrian paths, and the environmental restoration of the lagoon, which had been slowly filling with silt for decades. Sand from the lagoon was used to build up the nearby beach at Cardiff.

“This is another major milestone for our region,” said Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear, who chairs the board of the San Diego Regional Association of Governments, the area’s regional planning agency.

“It will reduce congestion, reduce emissions and incentivize driving together,” Blakespear said. “It will improve people’s quality of life.”

I-5 is one of the most heavily traveled freeways in California. Traffic slows to a crawl at rush hour, especially at the busiest intersections or when vehicles collide. Carpooling and mass transit are among the potential solutions.

Caltrans and SANDAG completed the first 12 miles of San Diego County’s I-5 carpool lanes several years ago from La Jolla to just north of the Interstate 805 interchange. An additional four miles is under construction from Palomar Airport Road north to the state Route 78 interchange at the Carlsbad-Oceanside border.

Drivers will be able to save 10 to 15 minutes a trip by using the carpool lanes during peak commuter hours, planners have estimated.

Any vehicle with two or more occupants can use the lanes. Also, vanpools, buses, motorcycles and qualifying clean-air vehicles. A single person driving alone without the HOV access sticker can be fined $490 or more for repeat offenses.

Carpool lanes are one facet of the North Coast Corridor transportation program, which includes improvements for highways, railroads, bicycle and pedestrian paths, and beach and lagoon access.

Caltrans and SANDAG developed the 40-year North Coast Corridor program about 10 years ago. At the time, the plan included the addition of two carpool lanes in each direction. However, planners are rethinking the idea of adding the second carpool lane, said Allan Kosup, director of the North County Corridor for Caltrans.

Widening the freeway is expensive and time-consuming, and it can only be done so many times. New technologies such as automated vehicles are changing transportation. Planners see reducing the total number of miles traveled as another way to cut pollution and improve lives. Recent state laws encourage developers to build more homes closer to where people work and with better access to public transportation.

New carpool lanes open

“It’s about choices,” Kosup said. “That’s the nature of transportation planning. You should look at it every five years. The right answer is to reassess.”

Construction of the North County carpool lanes began at Solana Beach in 2017 and is expected to end at the Carlsbad-Oceanside border in 2023, according to Caltrans.

The just-completed work includes two new bridges over the San Elijo Lagoon — one for the railroad and one for the freeway — both longer and wider than the bridges they replaced. The improved structures will allow better water flow in the creek channel and are higher to avoid flooding and sea-level rise.

Doing the projects together improves efficiency and reduces costs, officials have said. It improves cooperation between government agencies, and cuts the need for road and rail closures.

“It’s actually a model for how transportation projects should be done,” said Caltrans District 11 Director Gustavo Dallarda.

In all the work cost about $887 million, according to estimates released Tuesday. That total breaks down to nine miles of HOV lanes to Carlsbad for $300 million, the three miles to Oceanside for $110 million, the new freeway bridge and related work for $255 million, and the railroad work including the San Elijo double-track and crossings at $70 million. The lagoon restoration cost $117 million and Coastal Rail Trail construction was $7 million.

Funding sources include $322 million from TransNet, the half-cent sales tax approved by voters, and $195 million from SB1, the Road Repair and Accountability Act of 2017.