Local officials last week took a $28 million bite out of the Temecula tangle.
The initial phase of the Temecula Valley interchange – the first of its kind to be built in western Riverside County in years – formally opened with a quiet ceremony on April 24. The sun-splashed event showcased the latest in a string of major improvements over and along Interstate 15 since Temecula became a city nearly 25 years ago.
“There aren’t many cities in this region that have done freeway improvements like this,” Temecula City Councilman Jeff Comerchero mused as workers prepared to install the final signs needed to open the new exit to southbound drivers.
It was, Comerchero acknowledged, a proud moment for a city that has spent more than $100 million to improve traffic safety and ease congestion in a crucial corridor that falls under the jurisdiction and funding responsibility of state and federal agencies.
When the future segments are completed, additional work that will cost about $172 million, the long-awaited interchange will dwarf any other public works project done by Temecula or Murrieta. It will also mark the thorniest bureaucratic knot that either city has unraveled.
“This is a historic milestone for Temecula,” Temecula Mayor Maryann Edwards said in her brief remarks during the city’s ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The first phase of the project, which was in the planning stages for more than 12 years, is already credited with at easing gridlock conditions that snare southbound drivers as they try to exit Interstate 15 at Winchester Road.
The first phase, which resulted in the creation of Exit 62, has been anticipated as a relief valve for long lines of vehicles that formed as southbound drivers queued up to exit I-15 at Winchester Road. Southbound drivers often backed up to Murrieta, and driving was unnerving because I-15 merges with Interstate 215 in that area and motorists frequently jockeyed to exit or continue onto another exit or into San Diego County.
That congestion was blamed for scores of accidents over the years due to drivers weaving in and out of traffic. California Highway Patrol officers blamed many of the accidents on drivers’ inability to anticipate other motorists’ lane changes and erratic movements.
CHP officers said most of the accidents resulted in vehicle damage or minor or moderate injuries to drivers or passengers. There haven’t been any fatal accidents in that section of the freeway in recent years, officials said.
The collision that garnered the most headlines there in recent years involved a Riverside Transit Agency bus that was carrying five passengers. That August 2011 accident involved four other vehicles and forced the closure of three of the five lanes that carry southbound traffic. The bus driver and all of the passengers aboard the commuter coach were transported to area hospitals, officials said at the time.
Those traffic crossing patterns created a “very dangerous situation” that compelled Temecula to press ahead with improvements, Edwards said during the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Several other speakers echoed her analysis of driving hazards there.
Other speakers included Murrieta Mayor Alan Long and Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone. The ceremony attracted about 55 people, a group that included current and former Temecula officials, business leaders, contractors and reporters.
Some audience members took advantage of the orange cones to walk to the crest of the new exit ramp and watch vehicles whiz past in the nearby freeway lanes.
The initial portion of the first phase of the interchange project focused on widening the narrow bridge that spanned Santa Gertrudis Creek. Work to widen that bridge allowed the city to add another exit lane for southbound drivers.
That additional lane opened in late January, and it provided instant relief for what had been a nearly constant back up of vehicles at the Winchester Road exit.
“I’ve got to say that I’m surprised,” Avlin Odviar, a city senior engineer, told a reporter as the ribbon-cutting ceremony wound down. “It (the exit) almost never backs up now.”
The remainder of the first phase created a new ramp that allows southbound drivers to exit the freeway before they reach Winchester Road. The new exit ramp connects drivers to Jefferson Avenue, where they can turn south to remain in Temecula or turn north into
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.
Design work is now under way on the final phase of the interchange.
When funds are in place and the final phase is finished, drivers will use Date St. to access the freeway or tracts in Temecula or Murrieta. An eastern portion of the foundation of the new bridge that will span I-15 was created when preliminary grading was done in the area years ago by a developer.
When it is completed, the French Valley Parkway interchange will become the most comprehensive effort for a local agency planning and securing funding for a major freeway improvement. It would also be the largest project undertaken in or along the pair of fast-growing communities that began to incorporate in December 1989.
The area’s rapid growth combined with state delays in funding freeway improvements forced Temecula to begin planning freeway-related improvements “from the very beginning,” said Shawn Nelson, who served as Temecula’s city manager for 13 years.
Nelson, who headed the city during its period of fastest growth, attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony. He recalled his involvement in the early work on the new interchange and said he looks forward to its eventual completion.
“French Valley Parkway is going to be amazing,” he said.
Temecula had previously 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 have repeatedly approved for regional transportation improvements.
As the ribbon-cutting ceremony ended, Odviar said city staff is now focusing on its next major freeway improvement, the relocation of freeway entrance and exit ramps at Highway 79 South. The entire $48 million need to complete that project is in hand, he said, and construction is expected to begin in the summer of 2015. That ramp relocation work is expected to take about 19 months to complete, he said.
Edwards and the other remaining council members made their way to their cars as workers pulled away orange cones and made the final preparations before the ramp opened.
Edwards stopped to muse about the recent opening of a Mercedes Benz dealer in Temecula as well as the other commercial, retail and residential growth that has made the city blossom in recent years. Then she noted that the freeways that carry commuters, residents and shoppers into and out of the city are vital to its economic health.
“We want traffic. It just has to move,” she said. “This will help.”
Finally, she climbed into her white sports car, popped the convertible top and drove to the top of the new ramp to become the first vehicle to descend the sweeping, arched ramp.