Council rescinds approval of Ortega Highway widening contract, city stands to lose $15.5 million in funding

Near Reata Park on the east side of town, Ortega Highway widens from two lanes to four lanes. The City Council recently voted to keep the two-lane 0.9-mile section of the highway as it is, rather than completing the widening. Photo: Allison Jarrell
Near Reata Park on the east side of town, Ortega Highway widens from two lanes to four lanes. The City Council recently voted to keep the two-lane 0.9-mile section of the highway as it is, rather than completing the widening. Photo: Allison Jarrell

By Allison Jarrell

In order to even discuss a design contract for the widening of a section of Ortega Highway Tuesday night, the City Council had to first push the redo button.

Council members had already approved the more than $1.5 million design contract for the widening of a 0.9-mile stretch of Ortega Highway at their last December meeting; however, Mayor Pro Tem Kerry Ferguson wanted the chance to reconsider that contract approval. Conveniently for those on the council wanting a second chance, a new city policy was approved the same night, allowing for a do over.

The City Council voted 3-1-1 Tuesday night to rescind the contract approval, ultimately halting the widening of the segment east of town. Councilman Sam Allevato opposed and Councilman Derek Reeve was absent.

Following the years of work and funding dedicated to widening the entirety of Ortega Highway from two lanes to four lanes—and eliminating what many in town know as a 0.9-mile “choke point”—it’s no surprise that the decision to stop the project was controversial.

Rewinding the Approval

At the City Council’s Dec. 15 meeting, the council took action to approve moving forward with a personal services agreement with Anderson-Penna Partners for engineering design services in the amount of $1,545,646, which included preparing plans, specifications and cost estimates for the Ortega Highway “city-segment” widening project. The council also approved an amendment to a “funding assistant agreement” for the project with Rancho Mission Viejo.

On Jan. 5, the first council action item on the agenda was “consideration of revising City Council Policy 130—rules of order and procedures.” Brought by Mayor Pam Patterson and Councilman John Perry, the item adopted the latest version of Rosenberg’s Rules of Order (the 2011 edition) with the exception of policy regarding motions for reconsideration, which was adopted from the 2003 edition of Rosenberg’s Rules.

The council approved the new policy, with Allevato dissenting, and moved straight on to reconsidering the engineering design contract for the Ortega widening project. A motion to reconsider the contract was approved at the meeting, which was the first meeting following the original contract approval, and according to the newly passed policy, the council was then able discuss, once again, their issues with the project.

Councilman and former mayor Derek Reeve was home sick during the meeting, but took to Facebook to voice his concerns about the council’s actions. He referred to the meeting as “maddening,” reprimanded the council for “blaming staff for doing their jobs,” and went a step further to say the coordination of agenda items G1, G2 and G3 and “comments by councilmembers” revealed the “council majority had to (have) violated the Brown Act.” He clarified that the comment reflected his personal opinion.

“They could have moved to suspend the rules regarding reconsideration but that requires 4/5 vote,” Reeve wrote in a comment on his public Facebook page. “They knew they could not get that. So instead they just changed the council policy.”

Questioning the Solution

Ferguson said she brought the topic back to the council because she “didn’t care for the way the item was presented,” adding that she believes the council was not provided all the information they needed to make a “prudent and good decision” for the city.

Quoting a 2002 strategic transportation plan paid for by the then-city council, Ferguson explained her reasoning for questioning the necessity of the widening project. She said of the transit projects discussed in the plan, the widening of Ortega Highway was listed at the very bottom of secondary strategies to alleviate traffic congestion, following potential projects like the completion of the 241 toll road and an Avery Parkway extension. Ferguson said she wanted the Avery project to be reconsidered.

Allevato countered that the Avery extension is not on the county’s current master plan of arterial highways, and staff confirmed that a request to the Orange County Transportation Authority would have to be made to conduct a study to see whether or not that project would be eligible for funding. City Engineer George Alvarez also noted complications such as hilly topography in that area.

The widening project seeks to improve a 0.9-mile stretch of Ortega Highway between Calle Entradero and the eastern city limits near Reata Park that narrows from four lanes to two. The section of roadway is the last between Interstate 5 and Antonio Parkway/La Pata Avenue that remains unimproved.

The public’s comments at Tuesday’s meeting were largely in favor of pursuing the widening. More than a dozen residents who commute daily along the Ortega, have children who go to school in the area or live in a neighborhood close to the highway, warned the council of how unsafe the two-lane section has become. Thirty-nine-year residents Dennis and Marlene Draper said the area is especially prone to flooding.

“Ortega Highway has been widened. We can’t go back to those days unfortunately,” Marlene said in response to residents reminiscing over the highway’s scenic history. “Please listen to those of us who live there.”

Those opposed to the project voiced concerns over losing the “charm” of the “historic” highway. Some mentioned not wanting sound walls near their homes, while others questioned the validity of safety concerns such as flooding. Ferguson later said she doesn’t see “beauty in concrete walls,” and Perry commented that he was against sound walls and retaining walls and didn’t want to ruin a “scenic road to increase traffic.”

Allevato pleaded with his colleagues to listen to the majority of the residents at the meeting and “remove the bottleneck,” making the highway “safer for everyone.”

“It simply begs to be improved. There’s no reason I could see for not moving forward with this,” Allevato said.

The Road Ahead

In addition to any improvements lost by not completing the project, City Engineer George Alvarez estimated the total amount of lost revenue that was slated to widen the street is close to about $15.5 million.

“$6.1 million would be in Measure M, that’s competitive money. Grant money from Measure M can only be used for widening purposes,” Alvarez said. “We also stand the chance to lose $10 million from the county of Orange. The $10 million is because the widening project was split into two phases—the county portion and then the city portion. There was an agreement executed several years ago between OCTA and the county, and that’s what the county owes the city of San Juan Capistrano—$10 million.”

Allevato asked Alvarez what it would take to generate the $16 million to do the project 10 or 20 years from now.

“We couldn’t do it without external funding, because the total cost of this project is $29 million, and there’s no way the city can make up that lost revenue without external funding,” Alvarez said. “We don’t have the resources here. What we get in Measure M, the Fair Share and the gas tax per year is close to $1.6 million, and most of that money is used for the repair of our city streets.”

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comments (17)

  • Thank you to the City Council for protecting our residents and businesses by not voting to widen the Ortega and increasing traffic capacity to streets and intersections that are already rated an “F”. The widening would have only compounded the problem to our already blocked intersections and streets. Let Rancho Mission Viejo solve their own traffic problems and not be a burden to our residents and businesses.

    • Clint,
      Traffic backs up to the freeway because of the one lane bottleneck almost every day impeding SJC residents who live on the East side of the Freeway. Have you ever driven out there at 3:30ish or into SJC from SJHHS in the morning? And the Ortega floods at the bottleneck every time it rains. It is extremely unsafe. I drive from SJC to SJHHS almost every day and 100’s of kids and parents from SJC drive out there, too. It is a SJC problem, too. We don’t live in a bubble. Where exactly do our council members live? This is irresponsible.

  • Clint,
    It is SJC problem, too. We don’t live in a bubble! SJC can still remain “quaint”. Widening this road is not going to change our quaintness. It is going to make it safer for many residents of SJC live who and or travel road on this road daily. Did the council do any research at all? Do they drive out there at all during rush hour? During the rain. The only way to get to the dump and the local high school from SJC in a timely manner is by way of the Ortega. Yesterday there was a terrible accident that may have been prevented if not for this bottleneck. And this infuriates me and makes me sick because it involved people I know and it was not their fault! And every time it rains it floods on the corner where the road goes down to one lane. SJC has a responsibility to fix this problem. It is unsafe! I know because I drive it almost everyday on my way to my children’s public high school, SJHHS, and many young SJC people drive it too. This decision is irresponsible and illogical. And it is a misuse of power. They had to change the rules to vote this down. Why don’t they take it to the voters of SJC. I don’t understand your reasoning and it is not based on fact because almost daily the traffic is backed up on the freeway at certain times because of the one lane bottleneck. Sometimes it is so bad that I will drive all the way up to Crown Valley Parkway and drive through Ladera Ranch to go around it. It is ridiculous. Do you ever drive out there? It is a fact that people live in Rancho Mission Viejo. And people live in Temecula and people live out the Ortega and on the Ortega. It is a fact that a huge portion of SJC citizens live on the Ortega and this bottleneck directly affects there ability to get in and out of SJC. Do your research, please.

  • Let me get this straight, we can’t finish paving a bike trail from SJC downtown to Reata Park cause people from Rancho Miision Viejo may use it, and we can’t widen the road from downtown to Reata Park and our High School, cause the folks from RMV might use it. Gee, what if the residents of SJC need/want to use these 2 accesses? Why does the City Council think that they have the right to change both of these projects which have already been approved and funded? Oh right, as they’ve told us, they know what the citizens of SJC really want. Well, they r obviously wrong after listening to the speakers at both meetings where these decisions were made. Since the majority of this council doesn’t appear to have SJC residents needs as a priority, maybe the majority of the SJC citizens should reconsider who they elected.

  • Unbelievable! Ortega is so blocked the residents East of the freeway are stuck most of the day. Why would the Council not make this a priority? Turning down the money to fix this is nuts. I will rethink my votes next election. IF I can get to the booth! We need help out of this disaster of a road block.

    • Cynthia, If you are interested, please watch Tuesday’s meeting on the City’s website. The Ortega widening is Item G2, but G1 & G3 are interesting too. I don’t think the Council majority read the Dispatch, so they probably won’t see your post. I’m sure that they are more likely to get their “news” from “Common Sense”. If you want your feelings known, email them (also at the City’s website), or better yet, attend the next City Council meeting , and tell them in person.

      • Cynthia and Steve,
        Here are the council members and the City clerks e-mails to e-mail agreements or objections to these decisions. ‘ppatterson@sanjuancapistrano.org’; ‘kferguson@sanjuancapistrano.org’; ‘sallevato@sanjuancapistrano.org’; ‘jperry@sanjuancapistrano.org’; ‘dreeve@sanjuancapistrano.org’; ‘mmorris@sanjuancapistrano.org’

        I think if you e-mail the clerk it goes into some kind of city record but not sure.

        Since our city voted the widening down, I am wondering if our city will now be liable for accidents that occur there because it is a hazard.

  • Am I the only one wondering why Rancho Mission Viejo, Riverside County haven’t ponied up their fair share of the money required? Rancho Mission Viejo was only going to contribute a pathetic sum of $450,000 towards this proposed project. All of their residents will be using the Ortega to get to the freeway, they should be paying at least 10x that amount! And don’t get me started on Riverside County, thousands of cars come through the Ortega from Lake Elsinore and yet they wouldn’t be paying a dime! This was a financially terrible deal for the city. It is also pretty much set in stone that Mission Viejo will annex Ladera and the RMV developments, why should we pay for a highway that is and will be used by people who don’t care one bit about San Juan Capistrano?

    • Concerned Citizen,
      Are you going to pay for every road that SJC citizens drive on that is out of our city’s boundaries because we drive on them? This part of the road is in SJC. And most of it was going to be paid for by the county which includes all of us. This was illogical and irresponsible. It puts our high school age students at risk. I know that some of you are in some kind of a battle with each other but some of us are just citizens in the middle. I will never vote for any of these people!

      • Shelly and Clint,
        Rancho Mission Viejo will be 14,000 homes once all is said and done. They are building their own plazas for their own businesses, none of that tax revenue will go to San Juan once they’re annexed by Mission Viejo. Clint, you’ll be going to the future Rite-Aid at the corner of La Pata and the Ortega. I know that the bottle neck is a pain sometimes, but as Councilmember Perry said, adding more lanes will just increase the amount of people going through. These people don’t and won’t stop to shop and dine in San Juan, they just pass through to get to the freeway. Mission Viejo should be stepping up to divert all of their future residents’ traffic towards Crown Valley, a street that can actually accommodate the extra traffic.
        Even if (and probably when) the Ortega is widened, we should be pursing more money from Rancho Mission Viejo. Davidson Communities for its part is building just 32 homes on Joan Irvine Smith’s former equestrian center, under this deal they’re contributing $350,000. RMV is on track to build 14,000 homes and they’re only contributing $450,000!? Clint, you’re known around town as a financial hawk and you don’t see financial stupidity in making this deal!? The city was set to give $1.1 million from our own coffers, and I’m fairly certain that we’ve only got 8,000 homes on both sides of the Ortega! This whole deal feels like RMV is building out Irvine-esque housing tracts, and expects us to bear the majority of the costs.

      • Concerned,
        SJHHS is out there. Do you not understand that most of the SJC kids who attend Marco go to SJHHS? This bottleneck affects us. Please don’t write off SJC businesses. If it is easy to get into SJC, people will come and go out to dinner or the theatre because SJC is unique and wonderful. We have some great restaurants and businesses that people will frequent if it is easy to get to. If not then they will go to San Clemente when La Pata goes through or Ladera Ranch or somewhere else. SJC knows this is a hazard and is not fixing it so will it be liable as it has been in the past when it chose to ignore roads that are hazardous?

    • Concerned Citizen,
      And don’t you think that this affects SJC businesses? If it is a hassle to go to SJC then people will not go to SJC restaurants, shops, services, etc. from that area. When I am out at the high school and need to get snacks or something quick for my kids I go up to Ladera Ranch because going back into SJC sometimes is such a hassle.

    • Concerned — I live in SJC and I use the road daily. I want it widened. I suspect I will use it even more when Gelson’s opens at Ortega and Antonio, because I will shop there. The city was only going to pay $2 million of a $30 million project. A great deal for residents.

      HERE’S THE KICKER:

      The road will be widened. Maybe not soon (unfortunately) but a future council will see the need (it does not stop development. The traffic is here and will only get worse.) And that council, acting on behalf of SJC residents, will widen the street.

      Guess what? At that point — SJC will be on the hook for the entire project. The Measure M money will be gone, just like the Caltrans money lost when Hunt Club residents (majority supporters now, coincidentally.) sued.

      This horrible, horrible decision only delayed the inevitable, and cost the city millions. Brilliant leadership.

  • 15 or so years ago I went to several transportation meetings in Laguna Hills. There was a proposal of several tunnels under Saddleback Mountain. One for each direction of cars, train, and trucks. (The Swiss have 8 tunnels going under the Alps.) It would have gone from Cajalco (spelling…) to Rancho Santa Margarita. Lake Elsinore was all for it but Irvine fought against it.

  • The voters of SJC have no one but themselves to blame. This is what you get when your elected leaders stop representing the people of SJC and their best interests. In my opinion three council members here put the interests of the political group Common Sense first and that group has an axe to grind that is much larger than SJC. Unfortunately residents and their interests take a back seat and get trampled in the process. One thing I have to say and I never in my life imagined I would type this, hats off to Derek Reeve. I do not agree with the man on all issues but I can see that he has the best interests of SJC and its citizens at heart. He is a leader and elected representative in the truest sense of the word and his conduct in this most recent term has earned my respect. Given the opinion I held of him before the recent election, that is a long journey. But when subsequent facts prove I am wrong, I do not mind admitting it. Good luck citizens of SJC, you are going to need it.

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