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One of California's toughest commutes getting relief with 91 Freeway widening

November 2, 2009 |  5:25 pm


One of Southern California’s toughest commutes is about to get somewhat easier.

Officials Tuesday will break ground on a $59.5-million project to widen the eastbound 91 Freeway with the hopes of easing congestion for commuters along the heavily traveled stretch between Orange and Riverside counties.

The section through the Santa Ana Canyon has long been considered one of the worst freeway bottlenecks in the nation, connecting bedroom communities in the Inland Empire to job centers in Orange and Los Angeles counties.

The roughly 6-mile-long project will run from the 241 Freeway, a toll road, to the 71 Freeway and will add one lane to the four existing eastbound lanes, excluding two express lanes.

“The 91 corridor, that’s been one of the toughest puzzles to solve,” said Peter Buffa, chairman of the Orange County Transportation Authority. “There’s 300,000 cars traveling that route each day.”

He said the agency also hopes to eventually widen the freeway in both directions from the 55 Freeway to the 241 toll road. Commuters in that area got another boost this week with today's grand opening of new lanes on the 241 toll road, another route channeling Inland Empire commuters into Orange County.

The “Fast Trak” toll lanes run through the Windy Ridge toll plaza. Some 50,000 commuters pass through that plaza each weekday and the new lanes on the 241 Freeway are supposed to ease traffic flow to and from the 91 Freeway, said Jennifer Seaton of the Transportation Corridor Agencies. Seaton said that stretch of the 91 Freeway east of the 241 Freeway can be “very, very congested” and that the backup affects commuters using the toll road.

Transportation officials have been talking for decades about how to ease the commute between the Inland Empire and Orange County.

More than a decade ago, officials opened toll lanes along a portion of the 91 Freeway, offering less congestion for commuters willing to pay the price. The 241 toll road, which runs from the 91 into South Orange County, was also designed to improve the commute.

The 91 runs through a narrow canyon amid several mountain ranges, making it hard to build additional freeways between the Inland Empire and Orange County. In recent years, planners have talked about tunneling 11.5 miles through the Cleveland National Forest to build a new route, but those plans are still very much in the conceptual stages.

Orange County transportation officials said the bulk of the 91 widening project, $47.9 million, is being funded with federal stimulus dollars and local agencies.

-- Ari B. Bloomekatz

Photo: Los Angeles Times