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Highway 78 problems loom as county considers transit options

Above: Eastbound state Route 78 is considered one of the most clogged highway traffic arteries in the country. Courtesy photo

REGION — The San Diego Association of Governments has unrolled a proposal to become a national pioneer in modern transportation across San Diego County in the coming decades.

Calling it “5 Big Moves,” the plan aims to connect the county’s currently disparate public transportation into one united whole, anchored by convenient mass public transportation.

A central motive for the plan, says SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata, is meeting the county’s climate change goals mandated by state law.

But the move to the 5 Big Moves has also moved North County’s conservative officials to say that they believe SANDAG did not keep its promise in delivering upgrades to state Route 78 with taxpayer money raised from the 67% to 33% favorable vote in San Diego County for Proposition A in 2004.

Those officials also point to the fact that Highway 78 is jam-packed during rush hour, particularly between its anchoring high population cities of Oceanside to the west and Escondido to the east.

And cutting down that traffic, they say, was a key motive for North County voters who voted “yes” for Proposition A.

“I invite anybody to go drive on the 78 in the morning, evening, rush hour, even during the middle of the day now” said Kristin Gaspar, San Diego County supervisor for District 3, on the May 3 edition of The Voice of San Diego Podcast.

Gaspar, instead, said a first focus should be on building high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on the 78. And as it turns out, the California Department of Transportation’s District 11, which oversees the 78, has begun the process of creating an HOV lane going in both directions on the highway.

Allan Kosup, the District 11 North Coast Corridor director, told The Coast News that the agency is in the early stages of the feasibility study process. The HOV lane, he said, would allow for those making a trip across the corridor to avoid the segment of traffic aiming to get off on one of the exits.

According to the California Department of Transportation’s Performance Measurement System, the patch of traffic on SR 78 near San Marcos’ Twin Oaks Valley Road was formerly San Diego County’s worst traffic bottleneck, and it still sits in the top 10, according to Kosup.

Back in 2012, eastbound SR 78 was ranked the 13th most clogged highway traffic artery in the country.

Traffic was so bad that in 2018, the Department of Transportation funded a study conducted by researchers at University of California-Berkeley and University of California-Davis which aimed to see if synchronizing the slowing down and speeding up of eastbound traffic would aid in putting a halt to stop-and-go traffic.

The research results, according to its lead author and UC-Berkeley researcher Dr. Xiao-Yun Lu of the California Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology (PATH), showed that it did have a positive impact.

Lu said that PATH is now doing further research on the concept in Northern California for State Highway 99 in the Sacramento metro area.

Kosup said traffic on SR 78 gets particularly bad during the rush hour period, or what he defined as 6 to 9 a.m. and 2 to 6 p.m. and is most severe at the junction I-15 junction.

That’s because, Kosup said, it sits at the nexus of several major population centers which have grown exponentially since the turn of the century.

One example is San Marcos, whose population has nearly doubled since 2000 and nearly tripled since 1990.

A 2012 study of the corridor published by the Department of Transportation, SANDAG and the city of San Marcos further spells that out.

“(T)here has been considerable growth in population, employment and retail activities over the past 15 years which has resulted in increased congestion on SR 78 and these trends are expected to continue in the future,” reads that report. “In addition, there are a number of other major travel generators along the corridor, such as universities, hospitals, local and regional shopping, and recreational activities.”

A key focus of SANDAG’s 2021 Regional Plan is planning for smart cars and infrastructure to improve safety and reliability. Connected and autonomous vehicles plus their supporting infrastructure are core to 4 of the 5 Big Moves that will set the framework for the Plan: Complete Corridors, Mobility Hubs, Flexible Fleets and Next OS, according to the SANDAG website. Courtesy photo/SANDAG

That report also says that, during peak hours, about 124,000 cars drove on the western end of SR 78 close to Interstate Highway 5, while 162,000 drove on the eastern end of it close to Interstate Highway 15.

By contrast, relatively meek ridership numbers exist for the main east-to-west public transportation line during that defined rush hour.

According to rush hour ridership data provided to The Coast News by the North County Transit District for the months of January through April, an average of 1,288 riders sojourned on the 15-stop, 22-mile SPRINTER light rail line between the 6 and 9 a.m. time slot.

During the 2 to 6 p.m. time period, an average of 2,013 took the train on weekdays.

The SPRINTER, a line overseen by the North County Transit District which opened in 2008, runs between the Oceanside Transit Center on the west and the Escondido Transit Center on the east, hitting stops in San Marcos and Vista along the way.

“The SPRINTER was great in theory, but it’s been 10 years and they haven’t made anything more accessible from the stops,” said Jennasie Hart, 29, an Escondido resident. “It takes hours to get anywhere. Why take the bus and sprinter to get home at 2 a.m. from your shift that ended at 9 when you can drive home in 30 to 45 minutes?”

For his part, SANDAG’s Ikhrata agrees. He told San Diego’s NBC 7 that people will not use public transit en masse until it gets “as convenient if not more convenient than driving.”

But until that happens, Kosup said drivers can download the smartphone app Waze to keep up to date on traffic updates on Highway 78.

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