By David Downey | Contributing Writer
Whether you like toll lanes or not, many more miles of pay-to-drive lanes are coming to the Inland Empire.
Some are under construction. Others are in the planning stages. But when built, they will transform the region’s transportation system.
A little more than five years ago, the first Riverside County express lanes debuted on the 91 Freeway in Corona.
Now the 15 Freeway has 15 miles of the exclusive lanes, stretching from near the 60 Freeway on the border of Eastvale and Jurupa Valley to Cajalco Road in south Corona. Those lanes opened in April 2021.
By the end of next year, officials say, commuters will be able to drive on express lanes near the west end of San Bernardino County – through Montclair, Upland and Ontario on the 10 Freeway – and in Corona where the 91 and 15 freeways meet.
Generally, express lanes charge solo drivers for the ride and let carpools of at least three people use them for free, while requiring everyone to have a transponder.
10 Freeway project coming
The biggest project under construction is a $929 million venture in San Bernardino County that will bring two toll lanes in each direction along 10 miles of the 10 Freeway, from the Los Angeles County line to the 15 Freeway in Ontario. The freeway will continue to have four general-purpose lanes on each side.
Tim Watkins, chief of legislative and public affairs for the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority, said the complex project involves reconstructing or modifying 18 bridges, building retaining and sound walls, converting existing carpool lanes into tolled express lanes and building new toll lanes.
Auxiliary lanes, which run from one exit to another and help drivers enter and leave the freeway, are being added, he said. The project is on track to be finished by the end of 2023, he said.
Also under construction is a $270 million project in Corona that involves a sweeping ramp that will provide a direct link between the express lanes on the 15 and 91.
When finished, drivers heading south in the 15 toll lanes will be able to drop straight into the 91 toll lanes going west. Commuters heading east on those 91 lanes will be able to drive directly onto the toll lanes on the northbound 15.
Aaron Hake, deputy executive director for the Riverside County Transportation Commission, which is directing that project, said the connector ramp is expected to open by the end of next year.
Work began on that project in April 2021 – five days after the commission unveiled the 15 Freeway’s express lanes, Hake said. Carpools with three or more people ride free, he said.
Similarly, the opening of the 10 Freeway toll lanes will come with a three-person occupancy requirement for a free ride — a switch from the current rule that lets drivers use the carpool lane if two people are on board, Watkins said. He said that change will make the busy artery that connects Los Angeles and San Bernardino County – and carries 275,000 vehicles daily – more efficient.
“The demand is pretty high,” Watkins said of the existing carpool lanes. “Sometimes the speeds aren’t fast. At times, the carpool lanes are operating at the same pace as the general-purpose lanes.”
The three-person requirement should make traffic flow in the new express lanes faster than in the mainline lanes, he said, while offering an option for solo drivers willing to pay a fee to get to work quicker.
Why so many toll lanes?
The San Bernardino County agency is emphasizing toll lanes in its highway expansion campaign for several reasons, Watkins said.
“We are building express lanes to offer reliable trip times in an area that continues to grow in demand for both regular vehicular traffic and goods movement stemming from the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, and the Los Angeles basin,” Watkins wrote in an email.
New general-purpose lanes offer short-term relief because their effectiveness degrades over time as traffic volume grows, he said. By comparison, Watkins said, express lanes bring the flexibility of being managed for reliable speeds over the long term through shifting toll prices and occupancy requirements.
“And, general-purpose lanes benefit when some of the traffic moves over to use the express-lane option,” he wrote.
Another factor is financial. It’s hard to secure federal and state dollars for projects that boost highway capacity today — especially ones that don’t have a pricing component geared to boost a road’s efficiency, Watkins said.
Transportation officials also are working to expand commuter rail and bus service to give Inland Empire residents alternatives to driving jammed freeways, Watkins said.
The Riverside County commission also has been emphasizing express lanes.
Changing traffic patterns
Some drivers don’t like that. Some say too many toll lanes — and not enough general-purpose lanes — are being built.
Corona resident Amie Kinne, a business owner and Greater Corona Traffic Alliance administrator, would like to see more general lanes.
“In my opinion, the public keeps being told this is the only way we can create capacity,” Kinne said Tuesday, Oct. 25. “But what we have seen is that they (express lanes) are also creating congestion.”
Kinne cited the traffic jams that followed the much-anticipated March 2017 debut of the 91 toll lanes in Corona and prompted a commuter outcry. The Riverside County agency responded by building a 2-mile general-purpose lane on the 91 from Green River Road to the 241 toll road to unlock a choke point.
Kinne also cited a bottleneck that emerged on the southbound 15 at Cajalco Road in Corona when the 15 toll lanes opened in April 2021. That led to construction of a mile-long general purpose lane between Cajalco and Weirick roads.
“I don’t necessarily have the fix or the answer,” she said.
Kinne added that tolls often are “exorbitant” and many commuters, who are already struggling with high gas prices, can’t afford them.
In any event, highway construction generates headaches for commuters before delivering relief. That’s true of the connector ramp project taking shape at the notoriously jammed interchange in Corona.
Early next year, the 91-15 project will trigger a full, weekend-long closure on the westbound 91 to remove temporary support structures that were put up to guide ramp construction, Hake said.
Another full weekend closure is planned for later in 2023 on the southbound 15 to remove other supports, he said.
Beyond next year’s milestones, more is in the works.
Fixing the 15
A big project on the way targets an 8-mile stretch of the 15 Freeway, between Foothill Boulevard in Rancho Cucamonga and Cantu-Galleano Ranch Road in Eastvale and Jurupa Valley.
A $375 million project to build two express lanes in each direction is set to launch in 2024 and wrap up in mid-2006, Watkins said.
That project aims to improve travel in a congested section of the 15 that handles 190,000 vehicles a day, he said. That section of highway is filled with people traveling to Ontario International Airport and the area’s numerous warehouses, and with traffic coming off the 10 and 60 freeways, he said.
The San Bernardino County Transportation Authority and Riverside County Transportation Commission are teaming up on the effort, which crosses the county line.
Hake said his agency is partnering with the authority “to close the gap between our express-lanes project and theirs.” The goal, he said, is to build a seamless connection so “the experience of the driver is pretty much the same” on both sides of the line.
Farther south, the Riverside County agency is making plans to extend the 15 Express Lanes south from Cajalco Road in Corona through the Temescal Valley to Highway 74 in Lake Elsinore.
A draft environmental analysis is expected in 2024 for that 14-mile expansion of the toll-lane system, Hake said.
That $650 million project involves adding four express lanes – two on each side – while providing several places for motorists to drive onto and out of the lanes, Hake said. It, too, will require the building of sound walls and retaining walls and as many as 15 bridges to be widened.
Depending on several factors, he said, construction could start in 2026 and the toll lanes could open as early as 2028.
More in store on the 10
In San Bernardino County, officials don’t plan to stop when the 10-mile project ends on the 10 Freeway.
They want to add more toll lanes on the 10 beyond the 15 – all the way to Ford Street in Redlands, Watkins said. When the transportation authority reaches Redlands, the express lanes will stretch 33 miles across the county.
The authority has broken up the 10 Freeway improvements into three phases, with the current project being the first.
The second phase involves building 11 miles of express lanes from the 15 Freeway to Pepper Avenue in Colton. The agency hopes to begin construction in 2024, Watkins said.
A third and final phase would later add 12 miles of toll lanes between Pepper Avenue and Ford Street. And the authority plans to one day extend toll lanes on the 15 Freeway north to Devore, Watkins wrote.
Hake said the many projects aim to keep pace with the Inland Empire’s steady economic and population growth.
“It’s a steep challenge, but we have to keep moving,” Hake said.
In a region where so many commute and drive to area attractions, Hake said the mission is “making a better life for people here in Inland Southern California.”