According to traffic volume counts collected by the state, traffic has increased on the winding stretch of the 15 that runs past Rainbow and Fallbrook by almost 6 percent since 2013 alone.
That translates to thousands of additional cars on that stretch and 20,000 plus south of the Highway 78 merge in Escondido.
The annual average daily traffic volume between Temecula and Escondido along Interstate-15 increased between 2011 and 2015:
2011: South — 192,000; North –127,000
2015: South — 238,000; North — 135,000
Deer Springs Road
2011: South — 117,000; North — 117,000
2015: South — 125,000; North — 127,000
Rainbow Valley Boulevard
2011: South — 134,000; North — 134,000
2015: South — 142,000; North — 142,000
Rancho California Road
2011: South –152,000; North — 163,000
2015: South — 159,000; North — 169,000
Some mornings, southbound traffic along the 15 freeway begins backing up before the 15-215 merge in Murrieta and continues off through San Diego County. In the evenings, the impact is felt on the northbound side, with traffic through Temecula at rush hour best described as crawling.
The increase has been attributed to the improving economy and a Southern California housing market that allows families to buy a large house in Menifee, Murrieta or Temecula for the same price as an older, smaller home in San Diego County.
Donnie Carpio, manager of user experience and design for San Diego-based American Specialty Health, Inc., was recently transferred to the company’s Temecula office, which has shaved his sometimes two-hour commute into a bite-sized 15 minutes.
In the last few years largely avoided the worst of the commute to San Diego because his employer allowed for flexible schedules, which put him in the office around 10:30 a.m. But even then he was still on the road for around 75 minutes and sometimes had to drive into the teeth of it if he had an early meeting.
And to get back, he sometimes was held up on northbound 15 at the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint by Rainbow, which could tack on precious minutes.
“I feel like it’s gotten a little worse,” he said.
The San Diego Association of Governments, which manages transportation planning for San Diego County, has attempted to improve the flow south of Escondido by boosting use of the “zipper,” the hulking contraption that moves the adjustable median on the freeway’s express lanes.
The new schedule, which was rolled out a few months ago, provides three lanes of southbound traffic in the mornings from Monday through Thursday. The zipper moves the median back to the center for the evening commute, restoring a northbound lane.
“We’re using tech to maximize traffic efficiency,” said Helen Gao, a SANDAG spokeswoman.
The decision to move forward with this plan, which could provide a ripple-effect benefit for motorists on stretches of the 15 north of Escondido, was made following more than a year of analysis by the I-15 Corridor Management Team, a partnership between Caltrans, San Diego Association of Governments and the Metropolitan Transit System.
North of the county line, the city of Temecula is building a new park-and-ride lot on Temecula Parkway that could help people who organize van and car pools headed south.
The lot — which has seen construction halted due to a dispute with the former contractor — will replace the unofficial dirt lot west of the interchange, which will be eliminated when the city builds a new interchange there.
Temecula Mayor Maryann Edwards used a portion of her state of the city address on Thursday, May 11, to provide an update on that interchange project, which will start construction following a ceremonial groundbreaking in early June.
On Facebook, Temecula residents who make the trek south let off steam when they get back home by posting memes, rants and videos, including animated tutorials on why slow-moving motorists should stay out of the fast lane — in some places, they’re known as “road boulders” — and a Break.com video that showed caterpillars falling into a single-file formation.
“How it is these caterpillars can merge better than the traffic getting onto the 15 from Rancho Cal in the morning?” joked a commuter on a popular community page.
Others skip the humor and break out the exclamation points, calling on area leaders to cancel unbuilt housing projects until traffic is remedied.
Temecula Mayor Pro Tem Matt Rahn, a former commuter himself who used to drive to San Diego State five times a week, said the city recognizes that traffic is an issue but it can’t block development for people who have the right to build new housing.
“You have to balance, these are constitutionally protected rights,” he said.
With a new administration in Washington, D.C., there has been talk of a huge infusion of funding for infrastructure projects, which could shake loose dollars to finish the French Valley Parkway project or extend the express lanes of San Diego Country north and, eventually, connect that system with the HOV lanes in Corona.
Rahn said that connecting the two systems is the long term plan for the corridor but the Temecula section of the freeway is the last section that would be considered for the upgrade.
“The biggest challenge is federal and state funding,” he said, adding that he’s been lobbying federal representatives, including Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, to make sure this area is considered if and when a new infrastructure bill is put together.
“We’ve been making our voice heard, reminding folks that’s in the top 10 or 25 busiest sections (of freeway) in the U.S.,” he said.