Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director
Southern Californians have to be relieved that the commuter highway linking Lake Elsinore to San Juan Capistrano is now reopened to through-traffic. The good news came about midday Wednesday and by Thursday afternoon, motorists noticed that traffic patterns have greatly improved...from gridlock back to typical congested conditions.
Late in January, Mother Nature dumped so much rain on the Ortega that it destroyed a section of highway east of Rancho Mission Viejo. Caltrans required a project repair time frame of 3 weeks due to the extent of the damage. Okay, fair enough, but because tens of thousands of motorists use the 74 during the rush hour, the shutdown made a mess of the morning commute and created serious Carmageddon gridlock in the afternoon.
For those who had to commute solo by car out of the Irvine Business Complex area of Orange County and back to the IE each day during the p.m. peak congestion...I would like to give these people a medal because I have no clue of how these motorists did it. They had to handle a 2-3 hour commute each afternoon because traffic was not moving anywhere between the job hub and Corona during the course of the closure. Even if they took the 241 Toll Road in an attempt to bypass the standstill 55 freeway, the queue of stopped cars was backed up from before the 241/261/Chapman Avenue junction. Local surface streets and the Corona Foothill corridor were heavy drives as well.
Thankfully, the 91 corridor has Metrolink as an option and I noted that several more commuters were boarding the train because that was the only efficient option to get around all of the congestion. Since ridership demands increased, the question I need to ask is: Where were the extra train and bus departures and transit marketing during this closure?
The viable option to get around this disaster would have been for the state to increase and market emergency expanded Metrolink train service and connecting bus feeders. I posted such a suggestion 3 weeks ago. But the solution didn't happen and motorists were stuck in a jam.
I did not see any billboard ads, freeway alerts or anything along affected roadways advising commuters to take the train to Orange County and use the connecting feeder buses to get to work and back. The state well knows the commuter travel patterns for the Ortega Highway and being the most practical travel option to get around the shutdown, expanded emergency public transportation should have been offered with additional train departures to handle the ridership surge in conjunction with additional express bus departures for the I-15 corridor. Such public marketing does work because both of the prior freeway shutdowns in LA and Corona had expansive literature informing the public of the closures that yielded a positive reaction that didn't result in gridlock and an increase in transit use.
Government officials may want to better prepare for something like this in the future because the Southern California region consists of hills and valleys and shutdowns of key routes like the Ortega will most likely happen again; if such commuter routes are unexpectedly closed for any reason, there needs to be a fallback mass transit option to keep people and commerce moving, especially if it involves high volumes of rush hour commuters.
To summarize: The Ortega is all fixed and reopened. Another storm is expected to come in later tonight. Officials need to have emergency action plans at the ready to make commuters more aware of their travel options and to prevent this type of Carmageddon gridlock from repeating.