Ten years of planning have finally culminated in an onslaught of road construction projects on Imperial Highway in La Habra. By the end of the year we should have a shiny new street, but the immediate effect has been the opposite. Lanes are closed, traffic is often clogged, driveways are blocked making access to some businesses challenging, and bus stops have been eliminated. Shop owners have told me off the record that their business is down.
While stuck in eastbound traffic, I watched a truck trying to make a sharp left turn out of the Von’s parking lot onto the only westbound lane left open on Imperial Highway, just east of Beach Boulevard. He was dragging an orange cone with one of his right rear wheels while he rolled his left front tire over the median strip.
Widening Imperial Highway
The biggest job underway is the widening of Imperial Highway. Right now it narrows from three lanes in both directions to only two as it passes through the busy commercial area near Beach. It will be widened to three lanes for the full length of its transit through La Habra. Right-turn lanes and double left-turn lanes are being added, and new traffic signals will be installed.
But there’s more to widening a busy street than you might at first expect. There are phone lines, traffic signals, electrical connections and storm drains. Sam Makar, senior civil engineer with the City of La Habra, said the city got easements from 65 property owners, some for right of way, and some for construction, allowing workers to put materials and equipment on private property near their work-site.
Makar said the contract with the construction company sets December 2010 as the deadline for completion of the work, but the city hopes it will be done by Labor Day, September 6, because Caltrans wants to begin repaving by then.
Smart Streets andMeasure M
The Imperial Highway improvements are part of the Smart Streets Program created by the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) and funded by Measure M.
Planners throughout southern California have grappled for years with the difficulty of meeting growing transportation needs in a developed region where adding new freeways is difficult if not impossible. One solution has been to find ways to increase the capacity of surface streets. Orange County’s Smart Streets program is one example of that approach.
In 1992, Orange County voters approved Measure M which increased the sales tax by half a cent until 2011. Most of Measure M funds are dedicated to freeway improvement, but 21% of the funds are intended for street improvements, including Smart Streets.
Harry Thomas, Project Manager of Local Programs for OCTA, said the concept of Smart Streets originated in the 1980’s when OCTA defined an interconnected network of 21 streets in Orange County that already carried significant traffic. (They were originally called Super Streets, but the name was changed in 1993.) The plan was to improve traffic flow on those streets by widening them to 6 lanes, providing dual left turn lanes and exclusive right turn lanes, and coordinating traffic signals.
Of the 21 designated Super Streets, there was enough money (a combination of Measure M funds, Caltrans funds and developer fees) for only four, Beach Boulevard (completed in 1999), Katella Avenue, Moulton Parkway (which goes by several names in different locations) and Imperial Highway. Two projects on Moulton and two on Imperial Highway (one in La Habra and one in Brea) are still underway.
Measure M expires in 2011. A renewed Measure M (Measure M2) was passed in 2007, but Thomas said it doesn’t include funding for Smart Streets.
Measure M includes funds for mitigation projects intended to offset the environmental damage caused by transportation development. In this case sound walls are being built in residential neighborhoods along Imperial Highway west of Beach Boulevard to shield homes from road noise. They have been largely completed on the north side of the street, but the south side remains to be done.
One resident, who preferred to remain anonymous, told me he was happy with the sound wall. He lost his view of the Westridge Golf Club, but his property is quieter now. He only wishes it had been done sooner. Over the past ten years he’s attended half a dozen meetings held by the city to discuss the project with residents. The walls are on homeowner property, so it was up to them to vote on whether they wanted a wall and how high it would be.
The sloping strip of land between the wall and the highway also belongs to individual homeowners. The heavy mixed growth of brush, trees and weeds that once grew there has been largely denuded by the construction process. Some homeowners requested a gap in the wall to allow them access to the slope. In other cases there’s no gate in the homeowner’s wall and no sidewalk along the street, making it very difficult for a resident to maintain the strip. It was hydroseeded after the city was cited for mud running off the slope during recent rains, but so far, Makar said, there’s no plan for what sort of landscaping might be done when construction is complete.
Intelligent Traffic Signals
One feature often included in the definition of a Smart Street is technology that does real-time data sampling of traffic flow and adjusts traffic signals accordingly, thus eliminating the frustrating experience of having to wait at a red light for non-existent cross traffic. Makar said intelligent traffic signals are not part of the current work on Imperial Highway, but they are planned for the future.
Measure M2 doesn’t fund smart streets, but it does include money for traffic signal synchronization. Thomas said that OCTA should have a Master Plan for Traffic Signal Synchronization by April, 2011. It will provide a framework for cooperation among cities, which will be a requirement for any city seeking funds for intelligent signals.
But Wait, There’s More…
The turmoil you see in the vicinity of Beach and Imperial is not all due to Smart Street work. Other projects have added to the confusion. Caltrans recently finished improvements to the sidewalk on Beach Boulevard where it crosses over Coyote Creek just north of Imperial Highway, and La Habra is now widening the sidewalk on Imperial Highway just west of Beach Boulevard overlooking the creek. Construction of a bike path along Coyote Creek on the south side of Imperial Highway has closed the right lane on eastbound Imperial Highway east of Idaho.