Although freeways have helped shape the development of California, very few new freeways have been built since the 1980s. The focus has instead been on widening existing freeways, and adding carpool and transit lanes. But in Riverside County, where construction and development are major economic drivers, county officials are trying to add a new east-west freeway.
The proposed Mid County Parkway is seen as a crucial link as the county's population grows from 2.1 million to 3 million residents by 2025.
Initial plans for the freeway called for a 32-mile road from Corona to San Jacinto to be built at a cost of $3 billion. Earlier this summer, though, the county's transportation commission bowed to political and economic reality, and shortened the planned freeway by half, deleting the roadway's western portion that would have linked Interstate 215 to Corona. Now the $1.6 billion freeway – which is scheduled to open by 2016 – is proposed to cover 16 miles from the city of San Jacinto and State Route 79 to Interstate 215 in Perris.
Funding for the parkway is far from certain. Money will come from the county's half-cent sales tax for transportation, development fees, and state and federal highway funds. Riverside County Supervisor Bob Buster said he expects the roadway to be built in segments as development impact fee revenue becomes available.
But some Perris city officials oppose the project, saying it will cut their city of 55,000 people in half and remove 111 homes, businesses, a new fire station and a skateboard park.
"There's huge development out there, and we have to move traffic," said Perris City Councilman Mark Yarbrough. But, he continued "There needs to be a balance here. We're the only city being impacted like this."
Yarbrough suggests that the Riverside County Transportation Commission focus its efforts on improving and extending Highway 74, which would provide a better link between Perris, Hemet and Elsinore. Another option would be to improve already-existing Ramona Expressway, which would parallel the proposed Mid County Parkway.
Environmentalists have long expected the parkway. They accepted the parkway in 2003 as part of the Riverside County Integrated Program. That plan outlined future transportation corridors and set up multiple species habitat conservation areas for endangered and threatened species (see CP&DR Q&A, January 2004; In Brief, July 2003; CP&DR, January 2002).
However, after Mid County Parkway environmental studies were released, the freeway generated opposition – primarily along the proposed western half of the road – from local residents, a landfill operator and environmentalists. The western parkway would have gone through several reserves set up under the habitat plan.
The Riverside County Transportation Commission board, comprised of all five county supervisors plus city representatives, decided to scale back the project at its July 8 meeting. "They cut off the part that is most vulnerable to litigation," explained George Hague, conservation chair of the Moreno Valley group of the Sierra Club.
Indeed, lawsuits from environmentalists and residents of the Gavilan Hills area west of Perris appeared likely if the stretch of parkway from I-215 to Corona were included in the project. Buster said building that section of the parkway would involve a "protracted legal battle." Supervisor Jeff Stone agreed when he told the Riverside Press-Enterprise that the western section of the project was "a litigation minefield."
Instead of building the parkway, the county now intends to upgrade the existing Cajalco Road in the same area, which is likely to retain its rural character with the new roadway project ending at I-215.
While Perris city officials worry about the eastern portion of the parkway, Hague expressed fears that the western portion will still get built someday, and will be tied into freeways to Orange County. Much of Riverside County's growth is from workers in Orange County seeking affordable housing.
Hague noted that $15 million in congressional funding is being used to test the feasibility of building three 12-mile tunnels through the adjacent Santa Ana Mountains to provide new transportation routes to Orange County. However, now that the Riverside County Transportation Commission has dropped plans on the western portion of the Mid County Parkway, those tunnels appear doomed.
Supervisor Buster, who represents western portions of the county, said the decision not to build the western stretch of the parkway "is kind of a watershed point for the county" because it lessens the chance that a new road to Orange County will be built. A tunnel, he said, would have promoted jobs in other counties, while the revised parkway's focus is on travel within Riverside County. The county can also use money it would have spent on the parkway's western portion on upgrading arterial roads within the county, he said.
A new environmental study for the San Jacinto-Perris portion of the parkway is expected to be completed by next summer. Hague said environmental groups already are wary of the noise and pollution that the freeway could bring. "Our concern is this roadway will foster sprawl that will significantly impact the area," he said.
Hague also criticized the name of the Mid County Parkway. "When you say parkway, it gives it a nice, fuzzy feeling," he said. "It's a six- to eight-lane freeway."
Perris Councilman Yarbrough concurred. "This is not a parkway. This is a freeway," he stated.
Among the projects the new parkway would serve is the Villages of Lakeview, an 11,000- to 15,000-unit housing development awaiting approval by the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. Buster said he had recently met with the developers, Lewis Planned Communities, and they are still planning on building the project, despite the recession.
The parkway contains no mass transit options such as bus lanes or rail. But Cathy Bechtel, project manager for parkway, said there is room in the parkway's 60-foot median to add bus lanes in the future, if necessary. A train line would be difficult to build because of the region's rocky, hilly terrain, she said.
The city of Perris is already expected to gain train service that will tie into the Metrolink rail system by 2012, as part of a 23-mile extension from Riverside, she said.
An estimated 60,000 motorists a day will use the new parkway. Although Bechtel said an additional traffic lane will be added on I-215, Buster said details for the intersection with I-215 and the parkway still need to be resolved.
Riverside County Supervisor Bob Buster, (951) 955-1010.
Perris City Councilman Mark Yarbrough, (951) 943-4903.
Cathy Bechtel, project manager, Riverside County Transportation Commission, (951-787-7934.
George Hague, conservation chair, Moreno Valley Group, Sierra Club, (951) 924-0816.
Mid County Parkway website: www.midcountyparkway.org.