By The Signal Editorial Board
You know that feeling when you go to the doctor, and the nurse comes into the exam room with a big ol’ needle to give you your flu shot, and says, “This is going to sting just a little?”
You do the mental math: What’s worse, a few seconds of pain now, or shivering in the fetal position for a week because you’ve got the flu and everything it comes with, from fever to aches that go from head to toe?
You take the flu shot.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we are going through right now on the Interstate 5 through the Santa Clarita Valley, albeit on a much grander, longer scale.
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) have been working together for more than 15 years to add capacity to the I-5 in northern Los Angeles County, between the Newhall Pass and Castaic.
Those efforts first came to fruition in 2014, with the completion of a two-year, $67 million construction project that added new truck lanes between Pico Canyon Road/Lyons Avenue and the Newhall Pass.
It was Phase 1 of a two-phase joint Metro-Caltrans project, utilizing funding from a variety of sources including federal, state and regional transportation funds. The project’s official name has evolved, but has often been called the I-5 North Los Angeles County Capacity Enhancement Project.
That’s government-speak for “more lanes to handle all that traffic coming your way.”
The $539.2 million Phase 2 calls for the construction of new toll-free carpool lanes, auxiliary lanes, sound walls and other improvements to the I-5 between the Newhall Pass and Parker Road. That phase is scheduled to begin construction sometime after the 2019 completion of the current I-5 construction project, which is technically separate from the capacity enhancement project: Caltrans is in the midst of a two-year, $171 mile pavement rehabilitation project that covers 16 miles of I-5, including the same stretch where the HOV lanes will be added.
So, adding up the tally, that’s about a decade’s worth of construction, at a total cost of $777 million, in round numbers, all to give us an I-5 that has fresh pavement, expanded capacity for truck traffic, and HOV lanes to reward ride-sharing.
That’s one heck of a flu shot. And, it’s not without some “sting” of its own. Anyone who has driven the I-5 during the construction periods knows that the construction has, inevitably, caused some inconveniences and slowdowns.
However, those pale in comparison to the inconveniences and slowdowns I-5 travelers would experience without these projects. It is a cold, hard fact that not only is the I-5 one of the most heavily traveled freeways in the nation, but also that the demands placed on it are only going to increase through a variety of factors, including increased interstate and in-state commercial traffic.
And, make no mistake, regional growth will place additional demands on the already-busy freeway. With the Newhall Ranch project in the Santa Clarita Valley and the proposed Centennial development, on Tejon Ranch, adding approximately 40,000 new homes to the region in the next couple of decades, we’re going to need all the capacity we can get. Obviously, those developments are obligated to contribute to the construction of roads and highways to meet the additional demand created by the projects, and they will. But a major freeway enhancement like this just doesn’t happen without funding being cobbled together from a variety of sources.
Which brings us to the reason for the seemingly odd timing. To the lay person, it might seem as if all of the work should have been done at once — but instead we have three separate projects taking approximately a decade combined.
But, the experts tell us, such is the nature of major highway projects. You do them when the stars align, and the funding, design work and approvals are all ready. If you don’t strike while the iron is hot, the funding can go somewhere else.
Thankfully, the state and Metro have made our stretch of I-5 a high priority for funding and improvement. It’s always going to be an exceptionally busy freeway, but thanks to this decade-long flu shot, the pain will be much more tolerable in the many years ahead.