Work will soon begin on a $51 million project that is aimed at unplugging Temecula’s southern-most bottleneck.
That start, which is now being painstakingly strategized and scheduled, marks a key juncture in Temecula’s 15-year push to unravel the knotted freeway ramps that serve the city’s crucial southern corridor.
“We are so ready,” said Mayor Maryann Edwards. “It can’t come soon enough.”
Edwards and other city officials cite the big picture gains – the long-term benefits that will come when the existing ramps at Interstate 15 and Temecula Parkway are finally expanded and reconfigured.
Yet those officials and others concede that the work set to occur over the next 18 months to two years will likely tangle traffic, strain nerves and amplify driver angst.
“We’re the first to admit that there be some congestion with this (project), but we’re going to do our best to minimize it,” Greg Butler, Temecula’s assistant city manager, said in a separate interview.
The project, which will transform the west side of I-15 at that location, will be one of the most closely-watched city improvements in years.
Concerns run high because the ramps serve Temecula’s hospital, its historic business district, a heavily-trafficked residential and commercial corridor and a rapidly-expanding Indian casino and resort.
Temecula Valley Hospital has become a regional medical hub since it opened in October 2013. The closure of Fallbrook’s community hospital in November 2014 has boosted the flow of residents from that region to Temecula for hospital services and specialty medical skills.
The daily congestion that snarls northbound commuters on I-15 has periodically delayed ambulance crews that shuttle between the Fallbrook area and Temecula. Thus, city staff has taken the medical community’s concerns to heart, Butler said.
He said Temecula is committed to keeping traffic flowing during the construction work and consistently informing motorists about the timing and nuances of the improvement project.
Butler and other officials and observers say the long-term benefits will be worth the bother.
“Yes, there will be congestion and there will be slow downs, but it’s the temporary pain you put up with in exchange for the (future) relief you receive,” said Ron Bradley, who served as Temecula’s city manager from 1994 to 1998.
The ramps improvement project took a big leap forward April 25, which is when Temecula council members unanimously approved a $23.6 million construction contract with an Irvine-based firm.
The project will be the first major facelift for a freeway interchange that dates to the 1970s, which is when I-15 started to take shape and Highway 79 looped its way through a bucolic community.
Temecula became a city in December 1989, amid waves of growth that spun off shopping centers and housing tracts. Freeway bridges and ramps were quickly impacted as the city’s population exploded.
The initial projects aimed at easing traffic jams on and around Temecula’s freeway bridges and ramps focused on Winchester and Rancho California roads. As those projects were planned and completed, the city’s southernmost ramps emerged as a top priority.
The city purchased a 35-acre tract flanking the existing Temecula Parkway interchange in the fall of 2004 for $7.1 million. Another 1.2 acres – land that is now blanketed by an ARCO AM PM gas station, convenience store and car wash – was added in June 2013 at a cost to the city of $5.6 million.
That cluster of commercial buildings will be razed as part of the ramps project. The timing of that demolition work has not been determined.
The start of the ramp work will also force many carpoolers to find new places to park their vehicles.
For years, vacant land at the south end of Old Town Front Street has been used as an unauthorized park-and-ride lot. Scores of vehicles can be spotted on the dirt-crusted city land most weekdays.
In February 2016, the council agreed to pay a Bakersfield company nearly $1.6 million to build a replacement park-and-ride lot at Temecula Parkway and La Paz Street. At the time, city officials anticipated that it would take about seven months to build the replacement lot.
But work has stopped at that site and no progress has been made in months. Difficulties surfaced with the contractor, Butler said, and the city hopes to seek new bids in a few months to complete that parking lot work.
City officials note the availability of spaces at a church about a mile away from the construction site that were designated years ago as an authorized park-and-ride lot.
Once the ramp replacement work is finished, Butler said the improvements will bring the greatest relief to southbound drivers who exit I-15 at Temecula Parkway.
The project is expected to cut the queue of southbound vehicles that stacks up as drivers wait to exit the freeway. The new configuration will whisk southbound drivers off the freeway and directly onto Temecula Parkway or Old Town Front Street.
Butler said he can watch the ebb and flow of exiting southbound vehicles throughout the day from his City Hall office. He predicted that those clumps of exiting cars and trucks will someday fade into a distant memory.
“That (project) should be a tremendous impact,” he said. “I predict that (exit queue) will be dramatically reduced, if not eliminated.”