Late To Change Lanes

“Forty years of no real action is a long time.”

When the Coronado bridge opened in 1969, “traffic was not expected to increase so rapidly.”
  • When the Coronado bridge opened in 1969, “traffic was not expected to increase so rapidly.”

In Coronado, alternative transportation mostly means bikes, scooters, skateboards, legs. The options end at the bridge, where a link to San Diego is provided only for cars and motorcycles.

Some say the bridge favors traffic in another way: its lack of a carpool lane. One carpool lane moves as many people as two regular lanes, according to the Riverside County Transportation Commission. People choose to carpool more often when freeways have HOV or “high occupancy vehicle” lanes, a report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office found.

Coronado has unusually heavy traffic because residents share their streets with the Navy. Two commuter routes have turned quiet streets into highways. The high cost of Coronado rents and limited on-base housing means most military employees commute. They come from all over the county and as far away as Oceanside and Orange County.

In 2010, after voters nixed the idea of building a tunnel underground to divert traffic, Coronado resident Kevin Reilly drafted his own “incentive plan” to get the City to add HOV lanes on the bridge. “How much worse does it have to get before carpool lanes are implemented here?” he asked.

Reilly’s plan is a gradual approach that encourages carpooling by reducing commuting time. He also criticized the original planning for the bridge. Connecting this “major thoroughfare directly to the residential grid of a small town at an almost random point is a big traffic-engineering no-no,” Reilly wrote.

In 1986, the California Department of Transportation attempted to cut bridge traffic by up to 1000 cars a day by testing reduced tolls for drivers with one passenger. (Tolls haven’t been collected since June 2002.) The Los Angeles Times reported that “Crew members of three aircraft carriers based at North Island Air Station have contributed to the increased traffic.” A Caltrans spokesman said that when the bridge opened in 1969, “traffic was not expected to increase so rapidly.”

According to a traffic study commissioned by the town, congestion spills onto San Diego freeways, making Coronado’s issue a “regional” one. The bridge is controlled by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), which touts carpooling and mass transit in its new 2050 Regional Transportation Plan. But Coronado won’t find relief there.

“SANDAG is not proposing any HOV lanes on the bridge in the tunnel’s place,” says agency spokesman David Hicks. The only change for Coronado is Rapid Bus Service…in the year 2030. Hicks says there will be improvements to local bus service frequencies to 15 minutes…by 2020. Can’t wait for the 10-minute frequency? It’s coming — by 2035.

Hicks says there are several incentive-based programs in the Regional Transportation Plan that include “carpool and buspool incentives which would greatly help the residents and employees on Coronado.”

But Coronado councilmember Carrie Downey, who is on the SANDAG Transportation Committee, says, “What’s in the [Regional Transportation Plan] won’t solve our problems.” What would: “Getting people out of their individual cars.”

There are over 100 different projects in the plan, says Downey, who asked the city council for recommendations she could present to SANDAG before the plan was released. Other members stated in town meetings that they wanted projects to help with congestion.

Although Coronado voters rejected further study of the tunnel, they didn’t want to give up on other options. Prop H asked if they supported the continued study “of long-term traffic relief options, including a tunnel” between the bridge and Naval Air Station North Island. Voters saw it as being all about the tunnel.

After spending ten years and over $13 million on the issue, many saw it as a distraction that prevented the pursuit of more practical solutions, like carpool lanes. Downey, who supported the tunnel as one of several ways to reduce congestion, says alternative transportation was delayed because so much time and money was spent on a tunnel voters initially wanted.

Coronado is one of the few cities with representatives on three SANDAG committees: transportation, planning, and the board of directors. But nothing related to traffic is simple in Coronado. “Forty years of no real action is a long time,” Reilly said in his post-tunnel citizen-plan. His father, a “student of traffic planning,” had battled the same problems after the bridge was built.

In April 2011, the town formed a new transportation commission under Caltrans to consider ways to solve the problem. Their focus: finding a way to work with the Navy.

The Navy, however, has its own culture and community, with goals separate from those of a town. They resisted the tunnel, including having it open on base, for security reasons. And in January 2010, the Navy discontinued one form of alternative transportation by cutting ferry service to North Island, also citing security concerns.

In a presentation given to the Coronado Transportation Commission, the Navy admitted they hadn’t been “aggressive” in the pursuit of carpooling.

Coronado councilmember Barbara Denny, as ardent a supporter of carpooling as she was a tunnel opponent, argues on her website that “Coronado should let the navy take care of its house and Coronado should take care of its own house.” The town has “many other sources of traffic that put cars and trucks on our streets.” Denny promotes a range of “smart transportation” options, however, that revolve around the Navy, such as vanpools, Park and Ride, and Navy Express buses.

At the Traffic Commission’s November 10, 2011, meeting, the discussion turned to carpooling.

Mike Giorgione, commission chairman, said that in terms of volume, the issue is commuters to the base, and rush hours. It would be pointless to target Coronado’s other large employers, like the Hotel Del, on the carpool issue. That traffic comes by bus or cab.

Other employers are not the problem, commissioner Patrick Garahan said. “You could combine everyone else and it wouldn’t have that much of an effect.”

The group wanted to continue to discuss whether the Navy should dedicate the 1st Street gate to carpools only. Giorgione said it would tie into the strategy of an HOV lane — and wanted to make sure carpooling included vanpools for workers.

Vanpools are challenging, another commissioner said. People won’t do it because schedules don’t permit. Unless the Navy gets their employees into carpools, the problem won’t be solved.

It was also mentioned that a resident wanted a dedicated HOV mass transit lane on the bridge.

Commissioner Garahan said it should go all the way to Naval Air Station North Island, while Giorgione said the HOV lane should be on I-5, as well.

“And you can see how it gets complicated.”

Giorgione proposed to table the idea. In its place, another “strategy for decreasing volume” — which they had discussed with the Navy — was to provide “one of three incentives, or two of three” to get commuters to use mass transit. They included easier access, parking, and cost.

“If gas is $5 a gallon, people may start thinking about carpooling.” ■

— Sheila Pell

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