ENCINITAS — A plan from Caltrans to upgrade Interstate 5 includes building a 150-space parking lot and underpass for carpoolers on part of a strawberry field just off of Manchester Avenue.
Encinitas city staff members said the Manchester proposal would likely ease congestion and promote alternative transportation at Wednesday night’s council meeting.
Yet they noted there are downsides, with a loss of agriculture being one example.
Council concurred with a list of concerns compiled by staff. The city wants Caltrans to address those comments before the California Coastal Commission weighs in on the project later this year.
“I have to commend our staff for all the time they spent reviewing this,” Mayor Teresa Barth said.
The proposed Manchester underpass, known as a DAR (direct-access ramp), would channel car poolers, buses and solo drivers willing to pay a fee directly into the middle of the I-5 express lanes.
“The ramp is used to connect the local street directly into the center of the freeway,” said Arturo Jacobo, project manager with Caltrans, in an interview last week. “The purpose is to encourage people to carpool and use buses.”
Headed by Caltrans, the I-5 widening calls for adding four express lanes — two lanes in each direction — between La Jolla and Oceanside.
Projects off of Manchester Avenue are one part of a $6.5 billion package of rail, freeway and environmental improvements for the I-5 corridor. Funding would primarily come from a mixture of federal and state funds.
The DAR would run near the middle of I-5, allowing vehicles to access and exit car pool lanes in both directions.
Jacobo noted DARs are increasingly popular across the county because they divert traffic away from conventional freeway on-ramps. In the case of Manchester Avenue, the ramp is designed to alleviate the long line of cars waiting to get on I-5 in the mornings.
A Park and Ride with 150 spaces, another element of the Manchester project, would further catalyze alternative transportation, Jacobo said.
“If we want people to carpool, then let’s provide an area for them to meet with coworkers or friends,” he said. “That way, they can park, and instead of taking three or four cars, everyone hops in one.”
Additionally, he noted the Park and Ride would feature charging stations for electric vehicles and lockers for bikes. And the lot would link up with a planned bike path that’s designed to run parallel to the freeway.
Currently, strawberries are grown on 30 acres just off Manchester Avenue. Building the DAR and Park and Ride would impact eight of those acres.
Caltrans is looking to acquire an undetermined portion of the 30 acres from willing sellers.
Jacobo noted appraisals will soon be performed, adding it’s rare that Caltrans invokes eminent domain to obtain property.
San Diego resident Tom Alvin and representatives of Yasuda Family Trust, the owners of the field, could not be reached for comment regarding the future of the field.
Councilman Tony Kranz expressed worry that the Park and Ride could draw more drivers to the area from surrounding cities, making already bad traffic worse on El Camino Real and Manchester Avenue.
Additionally, Kranz said the plan would likely trigger Proposition A, the local initiative that requires that rezone requests go to a public vote.
The city asked the California Coastal Commission if Prop A would indeed apply, because the proposed DAR and Park and Ride seemingly change the zoning — but has yet to receive an answer.
In response to public and city input over the past five years, Caltrans significantly decreased the size of the parking lot and redesigned the DAR to shrink its footprint, Mike Strong, associate planner with the city said.
Strong said the projects have quite a few benefits, but city staff members have questioned whether the underpass and parking lot are necessary at this time.
Rapid buses that run along Manchester Avenue and are allowed in the I-5 express lanes, known as BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), are supposed to compliment the DAR and lot.
But transportation agencies haven’t approved funding for a BRT that goes along Manchester.
Until the funding comes through, other Manchester improvements should be focused on, Strong said. One noteworthy example is rebuilding the San Elijo Lagoon Bridge. If designed right, the new bridge would improve tidal flow, benefitting plants and marine life.
Working with the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy, Caltrans plans to restore parts of the San Elijo Lagoon. But city staff intends to make sure adequate funding is in place to ensure that happens.
Caltrans would be required to offset the loss of agricultural land by planting a school garden, or a project along those lines. As the policy is currently written, the language doesn’t specify that the replacement agriculture must take root in Encinitas.
The city wants to change this, guaranteeing Encinitas as the project location.
The Manchester improvements are just one portion of a huge I-5 widening environmental document. The California Coastal Commission will review that document in several months.
If the I-5 corridor package is approved, construction on portions of it could begin as early as next summer.
Strong said work on the lagoon improvements could begin in the next few years, but work on the DAR likely wouldn’t start until 2020, at the earliest.
Several public speakers spoke out against soundwalls at Wednesday night’s meeting. The topic is due to be addressed at the Apr. 23 council meeting.