Highway 74 continues to snare regional, state focus

A stretch of Highway 74 – one of Southern California’s most scrutinized and serpentine routes – has again been thrust into the regional transportation limelight.

The renewed attention comes several years after a segment of the road was widened and straightened between Lake Elsinore and Perris and work is about to begin on ramp and intersection improvements at Interstate 215.

A report recently released by the Washington, D.C.-based TRIP listed two sections of Highway 74 in the Lake Elsinore and Perris areas as among the worst stretches of road in the Riverside and San Bernardino areas.

The serpentine route winds its way from San Juan Capistrano in Orange County to Palm Desert in Riverside County. The report identified a 10-mile segment between Lake Elsinore and Perris and a 1.7-mile stretch in Perris between Seventh Street and I-215 as deteriorated or congested.

The 10-mile section was the focus of a $30 million straightening and widening project that was completed about three years ago. Another $30 million project is about to begin that will upgrade the I-215 interchange.

An activist Meadowview couple that once led protests lobbying for improvements to the Elsinore-Perris segment – an area local resident once referred to as “blood alley” – say they are not surprised at the study’s findings.

The years-long project eliminated many dangerous curves as it added two traffic lanes and a turn lane. But it also spurred the proliferation of strip malls and other rapid growth, said Gary and Thelma Grant, who have lived about a quarter-mile from the busy highway for nearly 20 years.

That section of the highway carries about 22,165 vehicles a day, the report said.

“What we fought for was safety, but what we got was gridlock,” Gary Grant said in an interview. “For every action there’s a reaction.”

Grant and his wife said that the addition of traffic lights – while successful at slowing vehicle speeds –have created commercial hubs in what used to be a rural area.

“We feel now that all our rural roads are being impacted,” he said.

A spokesman for a regional roads agency said the report accurately identified deficiencies at the I-215 interchange, but was wide of the mark in the Lake Elsinore-to-Perris segment of Highway 74.

“There is a problem as you get closer to the 215,” said John Standiford, a spokesman for the Riverside County Transportation Commission.

The commission is the lead agency in a $30 million project that is slated to begin soon and will include widening a freeway over crossing, realigning and widening ramps, installing ramp metering lights and building sound walls.

That project – which will be financed through federal stimulus funds, development fees and other revenue sources – is expected to be finished in late 2012.

Contrary to the TRIP report, the completed in the Lake Elsinore-to-Perris segment has brought considerable relief to the area and the improved corridor has not become choked by growth, Standiford said.

“Not in that area, no,” he said in a telephone interview after the report was released. “I think that project has made a huge impact in that area.”

Standiford questioned whether TRIP analysts were “very precise” in listing that highway segment as a problem area.

The report issued by the national nonprofit transportation group said deteriorating and congested roadways cost Riverside/San Bernardino-area motorists an average of $2,076 a year in higher vehicle operating costs, traffic crashes and delays.

It also noted that 66 percent of major roadways in the Inland region have significant rush hour delays that clog the average commuter 44 hours per year in traffic.

A total of 546 people died in Riverside/San Bernardino-area traffic collisions in 2008, the report said.

The report found that the area has among the roughest roads in the nation, with 88 percent of its major roads considered to be in poor or mediocre condition.

The report also identified a Temecula bridge, which was built in 1990 and spans Temecula Creek at Redhawk Parkway, as “structurally deficient.” It was one of 25 bridges in the Inland Empire – and the only one in southwest Riverside County – to receive such a rating.

Another transportation report that was released about the same time rated California’s state highway system as 48th in the nation. The state’s rating worsened from 44th place in 2005, according to the Reason Foundation, a nonprofit public policy research organization.

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