Guardrails slated for Route 163

Wood barriers through Balboa Park will keep corridor easy on the eyes

By Jeff Ristine 

August 9, 2004

With its gently sloping grass and dozens of mature trees, the state Route 163 median through Balboa Park has always offered a few minutes of respite from bland freeway views of concrete, steel and undistinguished shrubbery.

But with no barriers or guardrails, the median is particularly dangerous to wayward drivers. State figures show 29 accidents along the median from November 1997 through 2003, with 23 of them involving a motorist hitting a tree.

After years of debate on how to improve safety without ruining the visual appeal of the parkway, the California Department of Transportation is about to begin work on a compromise solution.

A steel-backed timber guardrail will stretch about 1.2 miles on both sides of the median along the four-lane Balboa Park corridor. The guardrails, believed to be a first for the state, will start just south of Robinson Avenue.

The woodsy, low-rise look of the equipment, and plans to plant more trees within the newly protected zone, drew praise from community organizations and others who helped defeat previous proposals to line the freeway with concrete barriers.

"I think it's going to really blend in well with the environment in the park," said Steven Saville, public information director for the Caltrans district office. "In the history of dealing with this issue . . . this is the closest we've ever come to consensus on (a) solution."

Caltrans expects contractors to begin work about Sept. 13. The $1.4 million job, which includes a new irrigation system and 31 new trees, will be finished by the end of the year.

To many who follow the issue, the project represents victory not so much for what it is, but for what it isn't.

An earlier plan to use the ubiquitous Jersey barriers, the concrete safety devices named for the state where they were introduced in 1955, would have been "pretty horrible," said Bruce Coons, executive director of the Save Our Heritage Organisation in San Diego.

"I don't know why Caltrans seems to think all freeways in California need to look like the L.A. flood control channel, but they do," Coons said.

The SOHO board supported the steel-backed timber as "the least invasive barrier" possible for the scenic highway, he said.

SOHO also liked the idea of planting additional trees to restore the parkway to its prime look of the 1950s. As trees have died or been removed after accidents, Caltrans has been unwilling to plant new ones in the median because they would have restored the traffic hazard.

State Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, also said she was pleased. Kehoe was part of a citizens committee that worked on the issue with Caltrans.

"We think it will make the highway safer and at the same time preserve its scenic beauty," Kehoesaid.

The landscaping through Balboa Park is considered a historic amenity, she said, and "we want the highway median to reflect this."

In an environmental impact report to the state, Caltrans said there had been eight fatal accidents involving the median from November 1997 through 2003, and 20 injury accidents. The road carries an average of 108,000 vehicles daily, with varying speed limits up to 55 mph.

Project manager John Rieger said Caltrans had all but resigned itself to a do-nothing approach when the possibility of using steel-backed timber arose in the late 1990s. The barriers, with brown wood from Douglas fir, hadn't been used on state highways in California and had to be crash-tested in Sacramento before the option was authorized for Route 163.

"It looks like a corral that you would find along horse trails," Rieger said.

The barrier will use a crossbeam with two vertical uprights.

Caltrans also agreed to install the guardrails five feet from the edge of the road instead of the usual eight feet. Doing so avoids any tree removal but provides less space for motorists to pull over along the left-hand lane.

Construction will be done mostly overnight. Contractors have not determined whether they will try to keep one lane of the freeway open as they work or shut it down to allow the work to go more quickly and more safely.

Rieger said the cut-to-order timber will give a bit if hit by a vehicle.

There is an unknown factor to the new barriers: No one knows how often drivers accidentally drift onto the grassy median, immediately recovering by swerving back into the traffic lane without hitting anything or causing an accident.

Distracted drivers who do so after the project is completed will hit a solid barrier instead of harmlessly running off the shoulder.

At Caltrans, some think that may happen on a regular basis. But Rieger said he believes that when the guardrails appear "people are going to be paying more attention" than they do now "just like when you get passed by two trucks on both sides."

The guardrail, he said, "may have some calming effect."

Jeff Ristine: (619) 542-4580;