It’s an early Wednesday morning on Green River Road in Corona. A one-mile stretch to the 91 Freeway is lit up with red brake lights as waiting cars move at a crawl.
Traffic navigation apps indicate that it will take between 23 and 29 minutes to travel that one mile.
For commuters such as Brian Catalano, a south Corona resident who drives the route to work in Irvine, the daily commute has become more frustrating as he and others complain that the 91 Freeway Express Lanes that opened in March have actually made traffic worse.
After more than a decade of planning, the $1.4 billion project added two toll lanes, plus one general lane, on an 8-mile corridor from the Orange County line to the 15 Freeway.
Catalano said commuters put up with three years of construction on the heavily-traveled freeway because officials promised them the project would relieve congestion. Now, he said, it’s created more back-ups on connecting roads such as Green River.
“The whole thing everyone is coming to terms with is you spend $1.4 billion on a project and traffic is worse,” Catalano said.
Officials with the Riverside County Transportation Commission, which oversaw the 91 toll lanes construction , acknowledge there have been some problems. But they say the project — the largest the agency’s ever completed — has been an overall success in accomplishing its goal: adding more lanes and giving commuters willing to pay a faster alternative.
“It has made a huge improvement in the afternoon commute,” said John Standiford, the commission’s deputy executive director. “The amount of congestion — it’s just night and day difference what it was before this project was completed.”
Toll lanes popular
Agency officials say demand for the toll lanes has been far higher than projected and that, once motorists are in the toll lanes, they save time. The commission expected up to 200,000 weekly trips. But in the first six months the number has ranged from 250,000 to 300,000, an agency report states.
That report found that at the 91/15 Freeway interchange eastbound afternoon commuters will see half-mile back-ups for 15-minute periods on Mondays and Tuesdays; On Wednesdays and Thursdays, traffic will back up for up to a mile for 15-minute periods. Friday afternoons see the worst back-ups — up to a mile over a one- to three-hour period.
For westbound morning traffic, back-ups last up to a mile for a three- to four-hour period Monday through Thursdays, the report stated. On Fridays, traffic usually backs up for a half-mile over a period of less than an hour.
Commission officials say they’re studying the corridor regularly since the toll lanes opened and have been making changes. They’ve added more signs, adjusted toll rates and installed plastic barriers to reduce conflicts. The agency also increased the buffer zone for entering the toll lanes near McKinley Street and painted directional signs on the roadway in both direction to provide clearer entry points.
“It’s relieved it some but not as much as we’d like to,” said Anne Mayer, the agency’s executive director.
At a November committee meeting, the agency agreed to spend $635,000 to have a consultant do more traffic studies and report back within six months with suggestions on how to improve.
Complaints from residents led members of the commission — made up of city and county officials — to call for quicker solutions.
“Many are at their wit’s end and it’s not a good scene,” Corona Mayor Karen Spiegel said at the meeting.
Traffic choke points
Michele Wentworth, a leader of a new group called the Greater Corona Traffic Alliance, said residents feel like they’re “boxed in” by the freeway.
“The collateral damage is all over our streets, it’s our neighbors, our friends and families saying it’s taking us 45 minutes to get on the freeway,” said Wentworth, whose husband now leaves a half hour earlier for his morning drive to Irvine.
Her group has identified three particular traffic choke points: westbound 91 near McKinley; northbound 15 at Ontario Avenue right before the 91 interchange; and the westbound 91 approaching Green River.
Drivers queuing up to enter the toll lanes are slowing down traffic as they approach the entrance at McKinley as are those entering it from the 15 freeway connector, Wentworth said. In some cases, motorists are doubling back to enter the toll lanes from the 15 at Ontario instead of on 91, causing delays as far south as Temescal Valley and Lake Elsinore, she said.
The group says Green River is the worst of the three intersections, with traffic there backing up through south Corona.
Ned Ibrahim, a former assistant public works director for Corona who retired in 2007 and was involved with the city’s planning team for the 91 project, blames the problems on design flaws.
That section of the freeway is being slowed down by heavy cross-traffic, he said. Green River alone has about 2,640 vehicles per hour joining 2,200 cars in each lane per hour, said Ibrahim, who got the figures from commission reports.
Those cars are entering the 91 shortly after the 71 freeway, with many of those drivers veering left to enter the toll lanes in Orange County, Ibrahim said. At the same time, cars are exiting the Riverside County portion of the toll lanes and veering right, he said.
“This is what I call the cluster,” Ibrahim said. “These are giant movements of traffic.”
He suggested that the transportation commission could make immediate improvements by spacing out the entrances and exits of the toll lanes to reduce the conflicts. Ibrahim said the project also needs an extra merging lane between Green River and the 241 toll road, as was originally intended.
‘Boiling point’ reached?
Riverside County Supervisor Kevin Jeffries, a member of the commission, said frustration among commuters from Corona to Lake Elsinore has reached “a boiling point.”
“Clearly, there is a very serious and very significant design flaw that has to be fixed right away,” he said.
Mayer called the Green River area “a mixing bowl’ and said it’s one of the areas the agency is studying for improvements.
The completion last year of the Foothill Parkway extension — which provides a connection from the 15 freeway through south Corona to Green River — also added more traffic to the road, she said.
Mayer and other transportation officials have met with residents, including members of the Greater Corona Traffic Alliance and are considering their suggestions, she said. But agency officials don’t want to make sudden changes without considering the ramifications, Mayer said. Otherwise it could lead to “unintended consequences” and create problems in other places, she said.
The agency is also looking at funding opportunities from the recently-approved gas tax increase that might allow for additional improvements on the corridor, she said.
Mayer said the agency can only do so much to deal with the increasing traffic demands.
“We need 22 lanes to handle traffic on that corridor,” she said. “That’s not physically possible on the 91 itself.”
Jeffries said transportation officials need to look at doing things differently if they are finding that a $1.4 billion project is still not meeting the region’s needs.
“We’ve been trying to build our way out of traffic nightmares for 20 years by raising fees and taxes to build infrastructure and all it’s done is park more people on the freeway in the morning and the afternoon,” he said.