Blasts, barrels mark steps in Highway 79 widening

The serpentine highway that links Temecula and Hemet is about to bulk up around the middle.

Progress on the recently-begun work to widen Highway 79 can be charted by the growing number of explosive blasts, barrels, concrete barriers and orange cones. The progress is also being tracked by area road officials and by drivers who have been fuming for years over the congested, crash-prone corridor.

“The project is going well. There was a little slowdown in the beginning,” said Patricia Romo, deputy director of the Riverside County Transportation Department. She attributed the slower initial pace to the need to protect sensitive Luiseno Indian cultural sites in the area.

“After we got past that, everything has been going smoothly,” Romo said. “Even the (explosive) blasts have been great.”

The current Highway 79 widening work follows other similar projects that began at Temecula’s northeast corner. Much of the initial work was linked to rapid development in the nearby unincorporated community of French Valley.

“It’s just been happening over the last 10 years,” Romo said. The county is the lead agency on the current project to widen the two-lane state highway. Federal funds are paying for a portion of the work.

Highway 79 once threaded its way through rolling meadows, rock outcroppings and stubble-covered hills. Residential and commercial growth has sprouted up around it in recent years, in part because Murrieta annexed tracts of land and nearby Menifee became a city.

That growth fueled calls for widening work. Serious and fatal traffic accidents in the corridor would periodically heighten commuter calls for action.

Some of the key visible work on the current phase began in May when concrete barriers were installed to divide traffic lanes. The construction pace has been steady, and earthmovers and other heavy equipment can frequently be seen chewing and clawing chunks of earth.

The construction plan calls for adding one traffic lane in each direction – as well as making several intersection and access improvements – in a 5.4-mile section of Highway 79, which is called Winchester Road in Temecula.

The current phase of the project will cost about $16 million, and it is expected to be finished next spring. That segment targets the area from Thompson Road to Scott Road.

The contractor, SEMA Construction, has had to briefly close the highway to traffic at least twice so explosives could be used to break solid sheets of rock that were in the way. The most recent blasts occurred Oct. 29, and at least one more round will likely be needed, Romo said.

Construction bids will soon be sought to proceed with the next segment, which will extend north to Domenigoni Parkway at Hemet’s south side. Work is expected to begin there in January and take about nine months to finish. It is unlikely that blasting will be needed in that area.

“It should be simpler to do and it is a smaller segment,” Romo said.

The county is anticipating that the ongoing and soon-to-begin work will ease the congestion and frustration that has vexed motorists for years in that corridor. But expectations that future development will occur will prompt the county to also grade enough extra land to allow another two lanes to someday be built there if needed, Romo said.

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