Temecula officials concede that commuters passing through their city endure “unacceptable” gridlock conditions, and they are now seeking help from the state, area cities, the Pechanga tribe and an array of regional planning agencies.
“It’s not all Temecula traffic. It’s a choke point,” Mayor Maryann Edwards said in a recent telephone interview. “We’ve been doing our part as best we can. But we can’t take care of the entire region.”
It is a problem that impacts a vast area stretching from Menifee and Lake Elsinore on the north to well beyond Bonsall to the south. Residents of the tiny community of Rainbow are especially hard hit, as gridlock conditions on weekday afternoons and evenings jam a popular frontage road that parallels Interstate 15.
Rainbow residents recently focused attention on their growing concerns.
The candid appraisals of current conditions, as well as the prospects of what the future may hold, were brought to the fore by Temecula City Councilman Mike Naggar.
Naggar asked that his colleagues tackle the issue in a recent open session.
During that Sept. 5 discussion, Naggar warned that the area’s flourishing tourism industry might be at risk if visitors must slog through gridlock conditions to reach the wine country, Old Town or the Pechanga Resort & Casino.
While Naggar was mayor last year, he spotlighted the importance of the region’s tourism industry during his State of the City speech. .
In that speech, Naggar noted that tourism revenue had tripled since 2004 and at that time exceeded $651 million a year and employed about 7,000 workers.
He cited the Pechanga complex – which is wrapping up a $285 million expansion – as an indicator of the area’s tourism allure.
Area officials are also concerned that gridlock conditions could cost lives.
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 an expanding menu of hospital services and specialty medical skills.
The congestion that snarls commuters on I-15 has periodically delayed ambulance crews that shuttle back and forth to the hospital from nearby communities.
“The situation on the 15 freeway is terrible,” Naggar said during the brief council discussion. “It’s terrible in each direction at different times, and something needs to be done about it.”
Naggar and city staff called for the formation of a regional task force that would draw on the revenue-raising abilities and lobbying muscles of state and federal officials, area cities, the Pechanga tribe and various regional planning agencies.
Naggar cautioned that he is uncertain if this approach will work. But something must be done, he said.
“We need to get together,” he told his colleagues. “We need to do a lobbying plan, a do-anything plan, a we’re-doing-something plan.”
A city staff report prepared for the council session noted that about 165,000 vehicles a day passed the Rancho California Road ramps on I-15 in 2015. Traffic figures for years prior were not available from city staff after that meeting.
Those gridlock conditions have intensified over the past two years, the report stated, and the future outlook is grim. Northbound traffic is typically bumper-to-bumper from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays from state Route 76 in Bonsall to Murrieta and other points further north, according to the staff report.
Caltrans predicts that by 2030 more than 250,000 vehicles will cross the boundary between Riverside and San Diego counties each weekday. The traffic flow at that location will climb to 285,000 vehicles each weekday by 2050, according to Caltrans predictions as cited by Temecula staff.
As noted by Temecula officials, the city has moved aggressively on its interior streets as well as its bridges and freeway ramps to help offset rapid growth.
The nearly 28 years since Temecula became a city has seen its population surge from 27,099 to about 110,000. Its employment base has roughly quadrupled during that period to about 45,000 jobs today.
The number of traffic signals within the 30-square mile city steadily climbed from three to about 130. Student enrollment in the sprawling Temecula school district has also mushroomed.
The area’s rapid growth combined with state delays in funding key improvements forced Temecula to begin planning freeway-related projects from the start.
Over a 15-year period following incorporation, Temecula spent an estimated $87 million on work that included widening its freeway bridges and ramps at Winchester and Rancho California roads and constructing a new bridge that spans I-15 at Overland Drive.
Much of that work was financed by developer fees and a countywide sales tax increase that voters repeatedly approved for regional transportation improvements.
As Temecula has grown, similar population surges have occurred in Murrieta, Menifee, French Valley and Lake Elsinore. Traffic improvements have kept pace in some of those communities but have lagged in others.
In April 2014, the city took a $28 million bite out of the Temecula tangle by opening the initial phase of the Temecula Valley interchange. That project was the first of its kind to be built in western Riverside County in years. It bumped Temecula’s spending output beyond $100 million.
In passing that mark, city officials said they feel compelled to improve traffic safety and ease congestion in a crucial corridor that falls under the jurisdiction and funding responsibility of state and federal agencies.
That first phase, which resulted in the creation of the French Valley exit, Exit No. 62, was seen as a relief valve for long lines of vehicles that formed as southbound drivers queued up to exit I-15 at Winchester Road. Southbound motorists often backed up to Murrieta, and driving was unnerving because I-15 merges with Interstate 215 in that area and drivers frequently jockeyed to exit or continue onto another exit.
But city officials warn that it will cost another $172 million to complete the futuristic new interchange along Temecula’s border with Murrieta.
The final phase will create new ramps on the east side of I-15 and weave together 11 bridges that span the freeway and various creeks and existing roads in the area.
The source of the needed funding is unknown, especially since the state several years ago withdrew a $32 million commitment to the bridge construction and ramp widening project.
The soon-to-be-created task force will lobby for the restoration of those funds and the commitment of additional revenues for that work, city officials said. It will also study ways to add new freeway traffic lanes throughout the corridor.
“In the past, the big cities get the (state and federal) money and we’ve been left to our own devices,” Edwards said.
Work recently began on a $51 million project that is aimed at unplugging Temecula’s southern-most bottleneck.
That start – which included razing a gas station, car wash and convenience store –marked another chapter in Temecula’s push to unravel knotted freeway ramps that serve the city’s southern corridor. Those ramps at Temecula Parkway access the Pechanga casino and thousands of homes and businesses on the city’s south side.
City officials said it is unknown how long it will take to enlist the involvement of all the hoped-for participants in the I-15 regional task force. Given the scheduling slowdown that often grips government agencies in the year-end holiday period, city officials said the group’s first meeting may not occur until early 2018.
City officials said they will seek the public’s involvement in order to build momentum and maximize the region’s ability to win scarce funding.
“Let’s get it moving,” Councilman Matt Rahn declared as the recent discussion wound down.