Construction on Railroad Canyon interchange improvements expected to begin in April

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The final portion of funding required to start construction on upgrades to the Railroad Canyon Road/Interstate 15 interchange in Lake Elsinore is finally in place, and ground is expected to be broken on the project this spring, according to local officials.

The California Transportation Commission approved $17.9 million in state funds Dec. 9, making up the balance needed to fully fund the approximately $45 million construction project, according to the Riverside County Transportation Commission. The project will add lanes on Railroad Canyon Road underneath Interstate 15, add exit lanes on the freeway and move northbound on- and off-ramps to Grape Street. It will also add a new interchange at Franklin Street just north of Railroad Canyon.

“We are hoping to break ground in April and total construction time would be about two and a half years,” Lake Elsinore City Councilman Bob Magee told Valley News by telephone Dec. 12. “And yesterday at RCTC we approved a project management contract and approval for final design.”

The city of Lake Elsinore has been in talks with the California Department of Transportation to upgrade the interchange for almost 20 years, Magee said.

“It involved over 32 design alternatives that Caltrans forced us to explore and during that time the various environmental reviews went stale, requiring us to do four different environmental studies,” Magee said. And of course, during that time the project morphed.”

Magee said one of the original designs Caltrans wanted the city to explore was a classic cloverleaf interchange design, with sweeping loop ramps that would have necessitated demolishing nearby businesses.

“But we respect private property owner rights, we respect these businesses,” Magee said. “Some of them have been there as long as 30 years, so the ultimate design does not displace a single business.”

Another interchange design the city explored a few years ago would have called for creating roundabouts at all five of the signalized intersections at and adjacent to the freeway interchange – which are the root of much of the traffic problems in that area of Railroad Canyon Road and Diamond Drive, as they can cause gridlock during peak hours. However, Caltrans denied that proposal due to an inadequate turning radius for semi-trucks at one of the roundabouts, Magee said.

The final design will eliminate the signal for the northbound off- and on-ramps on Railroad Canyon by adding hook ramps along Grape Street south of Railroad Canyon. The current northbound on-ramp will remain usable for westbound traffic on Railroad Canyon, but eastbound traffic will have to turn right at Grape Street to access the freeway under the new design.

Magee said the city does not expect to ever have a full closure of Railroad Canyon Road, Diamond Drive or the freeway, but delays are to be expected over the course of the construction project.

“We need to ask our residnets to be patient because help is on the way,” he said.

To address some of the potential delays, the city plans to open an extension of Camino del Norte to run as a frontage road from Main Street all the way to Railroad Canyon Road before the beginning of construction on the interchange.

Magee said the hope is that the new frontage road will function as a “release valve” while construction is ongoing.

“We expect to have the open shortly,” he said. “It will be done before we break ground on the other project.”

The interchange improvement project is not the only transportation project the city of Lake Elsinore is working on.

The city finished widening Railroad Canyon to three lanes in each direction east of I-15 in June.

Magee said Lake Elsinore is also in talks with Wildomar to improve Lost Road, which connects the Canyon Hills neighborhood with the latter city. And Lake Elsinore has reached an agreement with developers to connect the Tuscany Hills neighborhood north of Railroad Canyon with Greenwald Avenue, so that residents may use that as an alternative when there is heavy traffic.

“So at every point, north, south, east, west, parallel, we are making progress,” Magee said.

Will Fritz can be reached by email at wfritz@reedermedia.com.