The afternoon of Saturday, June 19, during the weekend following Governor Gavin Newsom’s lifting of most restrictions on Californians, motorists took to the freeways. At the same time Caltrans began to shut off the two left HOV lanes on Interstate 15 between Escondido and Carmel Mountain Road.
Gridlock resulted. Motorists were delayed an average of 25 minutes.
Although Caltrans had anticipated some slowing on that Saturday, it didn’t expect anything like what it got. It had done such a closure before, on Felicita Road & I-15.
This weekend, the state transportation agency plans a similar narrowing of the freeway, the third one so far—but this time it hopes for something less traumatic.
Maintenance crews will close two southbound and northbound I- 15 Express Lanes Friday at 9 p.m.to Monday at 5 a.m. to upgrade communication equipment for the I-15 tolling system at the Carmel Mountain Road toll gantry.
Southbound express lanes will be closed for almost 12 miles between Hale Avenue and Poway Road. Northbound express lanes will be closed for 11 miles between the SR-163 (State Route 163) connector and Camino Del Norte.
All main lanes will remain open.
According to Caltrans, “what happens this weekend will ‘dictate’ how we are going to deal with the next.”
The Times-Advocate spoke to Manuel Rivas, Central Corridors project manager/construction engineer, who explained that Caltrans is working to update its toll communication system on the HOV lanes.
The managed lane system has been open for more than a dozen years. Rivas explained the mistake Caltrans made that created so many unhappy motorists on June 19. “What happened and what we are doing differently is to announce the date and how many more we can expect in the coming months.”
The HOV lane—built for vehicles with at least two in the car—has been open for single users with the tolling system. There are 21 miles of HOV lanes between Hwy 78 and Hwy 163 on I-15. “We were obligated to update the system so it would work with the latest technology,” said Rivas. “This project is changing all the readers along the route so we can use the new transponders.” Drivers’ old transponders can still be read,
FasTrak will send the new transponders free of charge to customers when they become available.
Rivas added, “In replacing the system we needed to replace the readers, mounted on the overhead structures. This company is also doing some new rewiring.” The readers—about 20 of them—are located between entrances and exits. They identify cars when they enter and leave the HOA lanes. There is a toll gantry at each entrance and exit.”
He added, “They also have to test each location. Each location has eight repeaters and it takes a great amount of time and that’s why in reviewing the work, we determined it would be better for the public to shorten the time and minimize the closures.”
Caltrans estimated that one weekend closure takes the place of 10 regular commuter days. “We reduce the time of impact on the public,” said Rivas. “So in looking at those closures—we are always looking out for the public—we were going to have five closures. The second one was June 19. The next one is this coming weekend. The fourth will be the third weekend in August.
Their mistake last time happened when they were looking at the number of vehicles expected. “We expected a little bit of congestion but not as bad as it was,” he said. “The previous week, traffic had been rising and this was the first weekend after the total lifting of restrictions. Everybody was eager to go out I guess—so we had a very high volume over that weekend.”
Such a large number of vehicles coming into the fast lane at the same time caused the congestion. “Everybody coming from the same place created the backup,” said Rivas. This time they plan to close the managed lanes from the start by closing both lanes. “The traffic will not have this bottleneck point and will adjust to the number of lanes and should have a better flow. The two HOV lanes will be closed and you will be able to enter them again after you pass the work.”
Rivas added, “We will be keeping a close eye on potential congestion. One contingency we are looking into is to open up one lane in each direction where people use it for some stretch of time, in case congestion is too much.”
Caltrans traffic studies say volumes of traffic are returning to normal after more than a year of COVID restrictions. “They are not up to pre-COVID levels,” he said. They are about 10% less than normal, although some highways are back to normal.
More information about the I-15 Express Lanes including who can use the Express Lanes and frequently asked questions is available online at is dot.ca.gov/caltrans-near-me/district- 11/current-projects/i-15-express-lanes.
Caltrans reminds drivers to watch for highway workers and moving equipment and to always Be Work Zone Alert.
For real-time traffic information including traffic speed, lane and road closures due to construction and maintenance activities, and more, go to quickmap.dot.ca.gov/