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Monday, Nov. 19, 2007What does one say upon discovering that their home may be destroyed in the near future?

Bob Sulit bought his house on Portofino circle near Del Mar in 1976. Last week a neighbor handed him a flyer saying it could be axed to make way for a ramp connecting southbound Interstate 5 with eastbound State Route 56. I asked him what he said after reading it.

“Oh, shit,” reported the elderly Sulit, with a wince and a chuckle.

His was among the more good-natured reactions to plans being considered for the I-5/SR-56 interchange. Merge-land residents flooded a recent update meeting with the kind of indignation and scorn usually reserved for corrupt politicians. Some seemed to believe that’s who they were dealing with.

“I don’t like Carmel Valley,” growled a man who worried he wouldn’t be able to buy another house west of I-5 if his was taken. “It was overbuilt by people like you. We live in Del Mar and Big Brother is messing with us.”

But who could blame the homeowners? Many arrived flushed, already radiating anger, to hear about a possible freeway ramp that would all but wipe out a chunk of their comfortable neighborhood south of Del Mar and immediately north of Carmel Valley Road.

The emotions were multifold. Through many ran a vein of the most solemn sort of concern — what’s going to happen to my home? Some could not help issuing a nervous laugh contemplating it. The room simmered with catty snickers and desperate asides.

“What’s the plan in 50 to 60 years when a million more people use the freeway?” resident Dan Brown asked. “The beach?”

Project Manager Chris Johnson responded with a generous chuckle, but he didn’t have an answer. Johnson, a vice president of Dokken engineering, arguably fielded the most difficult assignment in the room: It was his job to explain the big diagrams with the thick red lines indicating potential new territory for the freeways.

Where the proposed red lines hit homes, he explained, those homes would have to go.

Pity it turned out like this. The concept of State Route 56 has been in the state highway system since 1959, and conceived of as a freeway since 1965. The whole stretch opened to cars in 2004 — with ramps connecting it to I-5 only for cars moving from west to south, and from north to east.

Southbound I-5 travelers who want to head for Poway still have to get off the freeway at Carmel Valley Road, wind through a couple stoplights on surface streets, and swing back on the freeway. Westbound 56 travelers aiming for Carlsbad face the same situation going the opposite direction. And Carmel Valley Road during a weekday rush hour isn’t an experience to look forward to.

You might ask, why wasn’t the 56 hooked up to I-5 in all directions from the start, like most freeways (sensibly) seem to be. That story is long and complicated and fascinating, and I plan to tell it in my next column.

But regardless of how the arrangement came to be, the city San Diego and Caltrans still bear the painful, expensive burden of having to better connect these two freeways. By “better” I mean that the connectors should keep traffic in 2030 moving at least as well as it does now. That’s the project’s stated goal.

Many design suggestions have been put forth about how to do this — with funny names like “horseshoe,” “north crossover,” “loop ramp,” etc. — and all but two have basically been determined unfeasible.

The cheapest practical proposal is to simply beef up the ramps and surface streets that currently connect the two freeways. The interchange would basically stay the same, but with more lanes.

If this “auxiliary lane” alternative is chosen, no homes will be destroyed. The project would shave some dirt from a couple backyards and build a big retaining wall, but aside from noise, the impacts would likely be minimal. On Johnson’s diagram, the red lines showing new freeway sections looked skinny and unthreatening.

Then there’s the dreaded “direct connector” alternative, where engineers would use ramps and bridges — bulky, tall, expensive two-lane flyovers — to connect the freeways. The direct connector diagram looked like a fat river of red lines running through homes and yards and hillsides, with elegant curves connecting the freeways’ edges.

“They’re very big,” Johnson ominously said of the connector bridges. “They’re very big.”

How big? The financial cost of direct connectors could be double that of auxiliary lanes. If built, the bridge connecting southbound I-5 to eastbound SR-56 would be as high as the backyards of the houses on the hilltop. (Of course, there’d also be at least ten fewer houses on that hilltop.)

A final decision will not be made between these alternatives until 2012, at the earliest. Project engineers haven’t yet completed traffic studies of the two alternatives — key information that will show their relative performance projected into the future.

Until they’re done, it’s somewhat risky to speculate on what the relative performance will be. But Johnson’s diagrams, with their long, red lines of potential freeway additions, present a simple reality to the eyes: With more money and more impacts, the project produces more freeway space.

And though possible, it’s hard to imagine that lots more freeway space — as opposed to a little more street space — wouldn’t translate to better movement of the nearly one million cars per day that will use the interchange in 2030.

The big, effective bridges could be coming or not. Residents don’t know. So what to do? They could fight the alternative they don’t like, and perhaps push for the revival of some of older options they might like better. Todd Bluechel bristled at learning that a plan to move the ramp to the east side of I-5 (where buildings and businesses, not homes, would be taken) had already been abandoned.

“Oh, we wouldn’t want to do that. We wouldn’t want to affect business. They’ve been there what — seven years?” the 25-year resident teased.

They could support the auxiliary lane alternative and hope it pencils out with the traffic studies.

Or they could sit tight and see what happens. Alan Kosup, who helps manage the San Diego I-5 for Caltrans, said it was “a big assumption” to think that if the direct connectors were chosen, funding for them would appear.

“It’s not clear to me that the region would have that type of money in that time frame,” Kosup said.

But residents ached at the realization that, years before a plan has been chosen, their futures are already cast in doubt. Despite a decade of public meetings, many were hearing of the project for the first time.

“Right now I’m captive,” Philip Rafael explained. “Do I make this home improvement or not? What’s the point of making it if the home’s not going to be there?”

Bob Sulit calmly explained their newfound dilemma: “All these homes were marked for death in terms of being able to sell.”

That didn’t keep Rafael from asking me anyway.

“Do you want to buy a three bedroom house for $250,000?”

Ian S. Port is Assistant Editor of the Rancho Santa Fe Review, Carmel Valley News and Del Mar Village Voice. Contact him at iansmithport@gmail.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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