Photo by Sam Hodgson
Caltrans widened this El Cajon Boulevard freeway overpass nearly a decade ago and primed it for elevators that would take residents down to a bus stop on Interstate 15. It's now deciding whether that vision will be realized.
John Bailous was standing at a bus stop on a wide El Cajon Boulevard overpass in City Heights on Friday morning, surrounded by amenities you wouldn’t expect to see on a freeway bridge: A plaza scattered with benches, tree planters, kiosks and a bathroom, which was closed.
“Only in San Diego you got a restroom at the transit center, and it’s all locked up,” Bailous said as he waited for a bus to take him downtown. “I ain’t never seen it open.”
Not only is the bathroom closed, residents like Bailous are still waiting for transit stops that have long been planned on that bridge.
Caltrans widened it nearly a decade ago after City Heights residents demanded concessions from the agency for building Interstate 15 through the area in the 1990s, razing homes and businesses and splitting the community in half.
The plan was to build bus rapid transit stations with elevators on two special overpasses — at El Cajon Boulevard and nearby University Avenue. Bus rapid transit lines often have dedicated lanes and fewer stops, allowing riders to get where they’re going faster.
In City Heights, passengers could ride the elevators to platforms on the freeway below, where buses running up special center lanes would stop and take them to job centers north and south. The wide bridges could also accommodate small storefronts, to reconnect the business corridors that were disrupted when the freeway came through.
Since the special overpasses were built, though, they’ve sat unused, the paint fading on the little kiosks and the bathroom’s outside walls collecting graffiti without ever being opened to the public.
In December, Caltrans and the county’s transportation planning agency, the San Diego Association of Governments, released three proposals for finally building bus stations at both overpasses. Caltrans will accept comments on those proposals through Monday and then decide which to build.
But not all of the proposals would use the special overpasses Caltrans built to make stations possible along the freeway’s center lanes. Two would. The third option would not. It would instead have buses travel in regular traffic and get off the freeway to pick up passengers at street level before getting back on the freeway.
There’d be no need for the stations on the bridge where Bailous was standing Friday morning.
Under the third option, the freeway’s center lanes, which in 1993 Caltrans promised would be exclusively for buses, could instead become carpool lanes. That’s what Sandag is currently planning for those lanes.
But if that happened, Caltrans couldn’t build the freeway bus stations at both El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue, even though it already spent $45 million to prepare the overpasses for them. Some of that money may have been a waste. Buses can’t stop to pick up passengers in the middle of the freeway if they’re sharing lanes with other cars.
Dave Schumacher, a senior Sandag planner, said scrapping the stations wouldn’t mean the money had been wasted. The wider overpasses could still accommodate storefronts, he said.
Sandag planned the HOV carpool lanes because similar lanes were planned on Interstate 15 north of Interstate 8, Schumacher said. If they continued through City Heights, they could ultimately connect to carpool lanes on Interstate 805, where the two freeways connect further south.
“It has to do with trying to create a system of HOV lanes,” he said. “It makes sense to connect the lanes from a system connectivity standpoint.”
But continuing those lanes through City Heights would scrap the stations in the middle of the freeway, which City Heights residents have been anticipating for two decades.
“It’s kind of a quandary, so this is where we have to make a decision, what’s the biggest priority?” Schumacher said. “Those were ideas way back. Sometimes what your original thoughts were, they change over time because of changing conditions.”
If Caltrans and Sandag do decide to build the special bus stations in the freeway median, plans for the carpool lanes will be eliminated, he said. The community’s comments will influence that decision.
Jay Powell, director of the City Heights Community Development Corp., said he and others who have been involved in the project were interested in the proposal that would best serve residents.
The overpass at El Cajon Boulevard, for all its aesthetics, is dangerous as it’s currently designed, he said. During rush hour, buses get off the freeway at the El Cajon Boulevard overpass and let passengers off at both ends of the bridge.
Some of those passengers, rushing to get on transfer buses on the other side of the street, run diagonally across the wide boulevard, dodging traffic to catch it.
One of the two proposals to build a station on the bridge and a platform down below would include stairways to let passengers emerge onto either side of the bridge, depending on the bus they needed to catch.
One benefit of the plan to run the express buses through regular traffic instead of center lanes, Powell said, would be that the bus could get off the freeway to pick up passengers at Adams Avenue to the north. There are no plans for a station in the middle of the freeway there.
In any case, Powell said the stations are long overdue. And he said the express buses, which Sandag hopes to have running by 2014, could reenergize a section of City Heights that was destroyed when the freeway came through.
“There’s supposed to be stuff happening there,” Powell said.
Caltrans is accepting comments on its three proposals through Monday.
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