Monday, April 25, 2005 | This is part one in a three-part series that looks at commuter traffic and how San Diegans are grappling with congestion. E-mail Voice about your commute.

The Merge by any other name might be Breezy, Easy or even, What’s The Fuss?

There are far worse intersections in San Diego County, according to one reporter’s highly unscientific experiment with three of the county’s common morning commutes: South Bay to Torrey Pines; North Park to Carmel Valley; and Tierrasanta to downtown San Diego.

The much-maligned merge forms at the junction of Interstates 5 and 805, bringing together throngs of coastal and central San Diegans on their way toward the sleek high-tech office buildings in Carmel Valley and surrounding areas.

On the day a reporter took 40 minutes to drive the 18 miles between North Park in central San Diego and Carmel Valley, just north of the merge, the famed intersection wasn’t the hold up. Of course, this could be a fluke.

It was an isolated drive designed to experience the worst of San Diego traffic firsthand and see what the county’s employers and employees are always complaining about. It was also a real bummer for a certain reporter whose own commute involves taking 64 steps from an upstairs bedroom to the kitchen for some breakfast and back upstairs to a home office.

Merge is worst in the evening

Gutzmer, who carpools with a co-worker from Science Applications International Corp., said before construction on the merge began, one could calculate with reasonable certainty how long the drive would take based on the time of day. Now, all bets are off. “It’s so unpredictable,” said Gutzmer, SAIC’s manager of facilities planning and client services.

On our reporter’s morning commute north, aggravating, bumper-to-bumper traffic occurred in fits – first at the University Avenue entrance to I-805 north and again at the exits for Clairemont Mesa Boulevard and the Highway 52 junction. Exits were the culprit again during a separate morning drive from affordable South Bay to the great halls of biology north of La Jolla. There’s the exit for Highway 54 and another one for Martin Luther King Boulevard. And the always-painful exit for I-5 north.

Perhaps what San Diego needs isn’t a better merge between the 805 and the 5 but better exits? The county’s highways seem to have plenty of lanes, enabling through traffic to speed along for the most part. It is the exits and, as a result, the first, second and third lanes from the right that seem to be the problem.

Despite leaving South Bay at 7:54 a.m., a 66-minute commute to Torrey Pines means our reporter would have been late for work, assuming her fictional work day began at 9 a.m. According to the congestion hawks at the San Diego Association of Governments, some 26,628 people make a similar commute each day. That’s a lot of people arriving at work frazzled from the shrill of horns, mufflers and morning radio.

Most San Diegans live and work in the same area

(Please e-mail Voice of San Diego about your commute.)

North City, which stretches from Pacific Beach to Del Mar and Tierrasanta to Poway, has the greatest percentage of workers living and working in the same area, according to the report, which is based on the 2000 census. Karen Lamphere, one of SANDAG’s principal planners and who manages Census services, said the data probably hasn’t changed much since then.

The report showed the county has experienced a significant shift in commuter traffic flows since the early 1990s, when most workers trekked from their homes in northern suburbia to downtown high rises. Now, more than 90,000 residents of Central San Diego, which includes downtown, commute to adjacent North City compared to the 68,701 North City residents who travel south.

That’s because of the rise of industrial centers in Sorrento Valley, Kearny Mesa and Carmel Valley and the increase in downtown residential development, according to Lamphere. “Now there are employment centers scattered throughout the county so people have more opportunities to live close to where they work,” Lamphere said.

In a perfect example – although morning traffic reports routinely cite horrific traffic in the southbound lanes of I-15 – it was the northbound lane that strained under too many tires during a drive from Tierrasanta to Sempra Energy’s headquarters downtown. Our reporter breezed past the worker bees headed north until the westbound lanes of I-8 halted everything.

Once again, exits played their role and then traffic rolled along. It took just 19 minutes to travel 12 miles. In San Diego, that’s not bad. Turns out freeway congestion on I-15 south is apparently farther north than Tierrasanta, clogging the stretches of blacktop from Escondido to Kearny Mesa, where the freeway hooks up with Highway 163 south and thousands of drivers turn toward suburban office complexes.

At least northerners have three major highways to use. Residents of the developing master-planned communities in Chula Vista are forced onto a single highway through just a handful of two-lane roads.

The experiment suggests an obvious lesson for the working masses: For easy commutes, live central and work south. But, if you want to work for one of those hip tech companies, prepare to suffer for your art. Or, negotiate a better salary so you can buy a house in Carmel Valley.

Tomorrow, part 2: Find out why San Diego’s employers are concerned about traffic and what they’re doing to alleviate the burden.

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