Start Your Shovels!

Dozens of Leaders Celebrate the Launch of Construction for the Phase 1 Truck Lanes of the I-5 North Los Angeles County Gateway Improvement Project.

By Tim Whyte

Interchange Editor

Dirt flew as supporters of the Interstate 5 North Los Angeles County Gateway Improvement Project tossed the first shovels-ful of dirt into the air, celebrating the long-awaited and eagerly anticipated beginning of construction for the project’s Phase 1 truck lanes.

The freeway just south of Lyons Avenue provided a fitting backdrop for the May 3 groundbreaking at the Caltrans North Region Survey Field Office on The Old Road in Newhall, as a steady stream of cars and big-rig trucks whizzed past while dignitaries spoke of the many benefits of the new truck lanes.

The groundbreaking featured participation and support from a variety of elected officials and representatives of the project’s partner agencies, including Caltrans, Metro and the Federal Highway Administration.

“You’ll notice that on this stretch of I-5 there are a lot of trucks and they are intermixed with the passenger cars,” Caltrans District 7 Director Mike Miles told the nearly 100 in attendance as he opened the festivities, literally a stone’s throw from the busy freeway. “In about two years this is going to look a lot different. The trucks and passenger vehicles will each have their own lanes.”

Currently, 216,000 vehicles travel on the I-5 each day between the Newhall Pass and Lyons Avenue. That includes about 19,000 trucks per day.

“If you drive this section of I-5, I don’t need to tell you it can get congested … It’s pretty heavy truck traffic,” Miles said, but added the truck lanes will alleviate the situation.

“It’s going to be a lot nicer for the commuters and it will ease congestion,” he said, adding that this stretch of I-5 is vital not only to the area’s commuters, but also is a critical component of the world’s 8th largest economy.

“We don’t call the I-5 the Golden State Freeway for nothing. It truly is the backbone of the state’s highway system,” Miles said. “Seventy percent of the cargo goes outside county lines.”

The Phase 1 truck lanes project will span 3.7 miles on the southbound side between Pico Canyon Road and State Route 14, where the new truck lane will connect to the existing one. Northbound, the new dedicated truck lane will cover 1.4 miles from SR 14 to Gavin Canyon.

The lanes will be accommodated by paving the median and outside shoulder areas, and moving the mixed-flow lanes inward, Miles said.

“Although we are building lanes specifically for trucks, everyone will benefit,” he said. “It’s an important investment in our infrastructure — for the benefit of our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

Caltrans continues to look ahead, he said, even as this phase of the project gets under way.

“After we complete this project in 2104, we will begin work on another important (phase of the) I-5 project — the carpool lanes between SR 14 and Pico Canyon Road.’’

Miles praised all of the organizations that have worked together to make the project a reality. “We’re very pleased with this cooperative effort. It’s a team effort.”

State Sen. Sharon Runner echoed the sentiment.

“It takes a community effort and you all fighting for this, for many years, to make it a priority,” Runner said, calling the groundbreaking a “momentous occasion.”

‘‘I don’t know of anywhere else in the state where there is as active of a group of people who want to make changes, that figure out how to do it and make it happen,” Runner said.

Assemblyman Cameron Smyth said the project has indeed been in the making for many years: He recalled discussions about the Gateway Improvement Project from his days as a young legislative staffer in the same Senate district that Runner now represents. 

“This has been a long time coming,” Smyth said. “This is such a vital corridor. The long-term benefits are going to make such a huge difference.”

Smyth added that the I-5 corridor in north Los Angeles County is important not just to the region, but the whole state. 

“We’ve seen it time and time again, the impacts of disasters, whether it’s the earthquake of 1994 or the truck tunnel fire of 2007, and the impact that it had not just on this area, the north county, but the state as a whole,” he said.

Smyth recalled that, when the freeway was shut down due to the fire in the truck tunnel in the Newhall Pass, “there was media from the Sacramento stations here — because of the impact that it was going to have on the whole state.”

The new truck lanes are expected to improve safety in the corridor, too.

CHP Capt. Mark Odle told the audience that improved motorist safety will be a by-product of the additional truck lanes, as they will help improve traffic flow and provide separation between big rigs and passenger vehicles.

“Any time you have improved roadways, you tend to have improved driver behavior, and you have safer roads,” Odle said.

Varied Benefits

“This is more than just a freeway project,” said Tom DiPrima, Chairman of the Golden State Gateway Coalition. He said the project represents potentially thousands of new jobs — both short-term and long-term — reduction of freeway congestion, cleaner air, improved safety, expedited goods movement, “and perhaps most importantly, improved quality of life” for everyone who depends on I-5.

“We all have daily obligations, we all have places we have to go, whether it’s getting to class, whether it’s getting to a meeting or even a doctor’s appointment,” DiPrima said. 

“And those are all very important. We also have personal commitments. We make daily commitments that, once missed, can never happen again — commitments like going to our child’s baseball game, our daughter’s dance recital, or a spouse’s surprise birthday party.”

He added: “If reducing traffic and congestion allows us to spend more time with our families, then the value of this project is priceless.”

DiPrima thanked the numerous legislative leaders at the federal, state and local levels who supported the project and have helped make it possible.

Also, he said, the Gateway Coalition’s efforts have been inspired and driven by the Coalition’s consultants, Tony Harris and David Grannis of Point C Partners.

Describing Harris as “my MVP,” DiPrima said, “Without Tony’s technical and project management skills keeping this driving daily and forward, I don’t think we’d be here today.”

He praised Grannis for his “vision of how public and private sectors could work together to achieve something special. David really set and created a model for all future projects.”

“With fewer resources available for us today, it will take partnerships just like this to get things done faster and more efficiently with less money,” DiPrima said. 

He added that, although the start of truck lane construction is an important milestone in the project, a great deal of work remains to be done.

“Remember, we are not done yet,” DiPrima said. “We still have considerable work to do to get Phase 2 done — we need to see those carpool lanes extended. We at the Golden State Gateway Coalition remain committed to seeing that project done. We are here for you, we are here to assure that those commitments we make daily are not left sitting on a freeway due to congestion.”

Santa Clarita Councilwoman Marsha McLean, a longtime supporter of the I-5 project, reminded the crowd that the truck lanes and the second-phase high occupancy vehicle lanes are just one part of a multi-pronged solution to the mobility issues facing Californians. 

“We are starting to see some movement here,” she said. “We need to make sure that we pay attention to the safety of our residents who drive this freeway every day. These truck lanes are going to help, the HOV lanes are going to help.”

But, she said, more work is needed. 

“No, we are not done,” McLean said. “We need to enhance our mass transit, our Metrolink, our rail… we can help people get off the freeways.”

McLean expressed her thanks to project team members including Arthur Sohikian, a transportation consultant for the City of Santa Clarita and a member of the Gateway Coalition’s consulting team.

County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who takes over this summer as president of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority board of directors, also praised the project team for shepherding the plan through the approval and funding processes.

In particular, he said, he appreciated the leadership and hard work of Miles and his two predecessors as Caltrans District 7 Directors, Doug Failing (now Executive Director of Highway Projects for Metro) and Tony Harris (now a consultant on the project).

“Tony, Doug and Michael have been very hands-on dealing with the area I represent, which is larger than the other four supervisorial districts combined,” Antonovich said. “Tony, Doug and Michael have come out to our quarterly meetings in Antelope Valley so that the 14 and the 138, which at one time were not considered part of L.A. County by the MTA, they now know that this is L.A. County and we have been doing an incredible job because of their leadership, and we appreciate that very, very much.” 

He added the I-5 project will help tremendously to reduce congestion and facilitate goods movement.

“This is very vital,” Antonovich said. “We are very pleased this cooperative effort has been able to put it forward. It’s a team effort.”

Antonovich added that the second phase of the project will be an important addition to the county’s network of HOV lanes, which will ultimately enable a vehicle to travel as far as 100 miles without leaving a carpool lane.

Metro Board Member Ara Najarian, a Glendale City Council member who has been a strong advocate of the I-5 project, credited the Gateway Coalition with increasing awareness about it.

“I’d like to thank Victor Lindenheim and the Golden State Gateway Coalition,” Najarian said. “One of the first (people who) reached out to me even before I was an MTA member was Victor, and he made sure I understood how important and vital this artery is to Los Angeles County and the region. It really set my direction straight.”

Najarian also had high praise for fellow Metro board member Antonovich. 

“Most importantly I want to thank Supervisor Antonovich, who fights a tough fight on the MTA board. I am happy to stand beside him,” Najarian said. “At the MTA board we really have to fight to let people realize that there is a vital, vibrant part of L.A. County, and we are part of L.A. County — we are not the hinterlands past the 134.’’

He added the prospects are bright for future improvements of I-5 in the north county area.

“Things are happening up here — we’re working hard for you,” Najarian said. “HOV lanes are next.”

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