This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register on January 5, 2021.
People staying home during the coronavirus pandemic led to emptier streets and freeways and sped-up roadwork schedules in 2020, and that progress will continue in 2021, transportation officials said.
The year will start off with completion of a key project for south county drivers: the new Oso Parkway bridge is expected to open this month, said Samuel Johnson, CEO of the Transportation Corridor Agencies, which operate the toll road system including the 73, 133, 241 and 261 routes.
The bridge can be used by pedestrians and cyclists, and it will allow drivers to connect directly between State Route 241 and Los Patrones Parkway. TCA is funding the $40 million project.
Also to the south, the Orange County Transportation Authority will continue improvements along a six-mile stretch of the 5 Freeway between the 73 toll road and El Toro Road, with significant progress expected on interchanges at La Paz Road and Avery Parkway, OCTA CEO Darrell Johnson said. The entire project is expected to finish in 2025.
Drivers in the north and central parts of the county may notice OCTA forging ahead this year to finish rebuilding more of the bridges over the 405 Freeway. Out of 18 bridges between the Los Angeles County line and the 73 interchange, three new bridges (Bushard Street and McFadden and Slater avenues) have opened in the past two years; all the rest are under construction, OCTA’s Johnson said.
As many as six additional bridges could open to traffic by the end of the year, including those at Bolsa Chica Road, Goldenwest and Magnolia streets and Talbert Avenue.
The bridge overhaul is part of a $1.9 billion plan to widen the 405 with another all-access lane and a second express lane in each direction.
To improve safety, the toll roads agency will finish a temporary project to install pylons on the 241 where it connects to the 91. The goal is to “mitigate those situations where we have impatient drivers” who try to bypass backups in the transition lanes and then cut in at the last minute, TCA’s Johnson said.
The flexible pylons will be in place until new connecting ramps are built to give drivers direct access between express lanes on the 91 and 241 freeways. The longer-term, $250 million project, which should be open by 2025, is being funded by TCA and built in cooperation with Caltrans, OCTA and the Riverside County Transportation Commission.
Meanwhile, bus service in Orange County is likely to continue at a reduced level after use plummeted during the pandemic, OCTA’s Johnson said. The agency cut service early on, after the first stay-home order in March caused average ridership to fall from about 125,000 boardings each weekday to about 30,000 daily boardings.
While some riders have returned, “we’re carrying about half the riders but we’re running about 70% of the previous service” to allow spaced-out seating, he said. Buses also are now equipped with a plexiglass barrier to protect drivers, hand sanitizer dispensers and free masks for riders who need them. In August, OCTA introduced a transit app that riders can use while they wait for a bus to find out how full it is.
Orange County’s bus lines previously saw heavy usage by workers in and around the Disneyland Resort, community college students and others whose daily routines may still be affected by pandemic closures. Johnson said officials will wait until more schools and visitor-serving businesses return to regular operations before they ramp bus service up further.
People who live in or visit central Orange County may notice significant progress on the OC Streetcar this year that will connect Santa Ana and Garden Grove.
The first tracks were laid in December, and that will continue this year, along with the construction of some of the stations and a maintenance facility. The actual streetcar vehicles are being completed and are expected to begin testing by 2022, Darrell Johnson said.
Both OCTA and TCA saw their revenues drop in 2020, and OCTA is hoping to see more federal aid to help offset the loss of bus fares and money from the quarter-cent transportation sales tax, which Johnson said has gone down along with economic activity generally.
While fewer drivers used the county’s toll roads in the early months of the pandemic, traffic and revenues are recovering, and Samuel Johnson said the agency is working on reducing future debt payments by refunding bonds. Potential savings of more than $100 million could pay for more projects or help reduce the agency’s debt even further, he said.
2021 transportation work
Here are some of the major developments expected in transportation in Orange County this year:
Oso Parkway bridge: A $40 million project that lets drivers directly connect between the 241 toll road and Los Patrones Parkway is expected to open in January. Los Patrones has been expanded in recent years to Cow Camp Road.
Improvements to 5 freeway: A six-year project along six miles of the 5 in south county is widening the freeway and improving several interchanges and ramps. Significant work will be done on the La Paz Road and Avery Parkway interchanges this year.
Bridges on 405 freeway: Most of the 18 bridges over the 405 between Seal Beach and Costa Mesa are under construction to accommodate a wider freeway. Six bridges, including at Bolsa Chica Road and Goldenwest and Magnolia streets, may be done this year.
OC Streetcar: Tracks are now being laid for the 4.1-mile streetcar that will run through Santa Ana and Garden Grove, and some of the stations will be built in 2021. The vehicles may also begin testing later this year.