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By Shawn Raymundo
If you’ve ever driven in and out of San Juan Capistrano on Ortega Highway during the weekday morning and afternoon commutes, odds are you’ve gotten stuck in traffic while approaching what residents in the community refer to as the “chokepoint.”
On this roughly mile-long stretch of state-owned highway, the road narrows from four lanes to two, creating a bottleneck of motorists squeezing their way either toward the I-5 freeway or toward Antonio Parkway/La Pata Avenue.
Following years of setbacks, longstanding plans to widen Ortega Highway are progressing, City Manager Ben Siegel announced to residents during a recent Coffee Chat at Hennessey’s Tavern.
During that April 26 forum, Siegel answered questions pertaining to the city’s road projects, including what’s officially titled the SR 74-Lower Ortega Highway Widening Project. Provided the California Department of Transportation secures the necessary funding, he said construction of the project should be underway by 2024.
Acknowledging that anticipated completion is about another five years out, Mayor Brian Maryott said he’s been grateful to the community for remaining patient.
“It’s been a lot of twists and turns along the way, but we do look forward to it being done in the not too distant future,” he said.
When construction commences, the project would include the widening of the narrow stretch between Calle Entradero and the eastern city limits near Reata Park from two lanes to four, helping to mitigate traffic congestion.
According to data compiled by Caltrans, Ortega Highway has seen a stark increase in traffic volume, with the average amount of daily vehicles using the road rising from 27,500 in 2010 to 43,500 in 2015.
An Orange County Grand Jury report from 2017 noted that with the expansion of Rancho Mission Viejo over the next two decades, “additional access from numerous roadways including Ortega Highway will be needed.”
Safety concerns have also been cited throughout the years to stress the need for the widening project. The Grand Jury report points out that vehicles turning left on Ortega have to cross the highly trafficked road and merge into the single lane, calling the maneuver “problematic,” as “there are few, if any, breaks in the oncoming traffic.”
“The completion of this section of Ortega Highway would provide a center median/two-way left turn lane, which serves two purposes: it provides a dedicated left turn lane for traffic on Ortega Highway, and it provides a ‘safe haven’ for side street traffic turning left onto (it),” the report stated.
Based on the Orange County Public Works Department’s estimates from 2017, the project is expected to cost more than $52 million in federal and state funding. However, Elizabeth Manzo, public information officer for Caltrans, notes that the estimated price tag is “still being developed.”
That project, according to Caltrans, is currently in the environmental phase and will be followed by a design phase that’s planned for 2020, with construction estimated to begin during the summer of 2023 and the expanded road open to the public in 2025.
The “Twists and Turns”
For many years, consideration of the project was rife with delays, because previous city councils went back and forth over whether to support it. And for a time, the city was the lead agency in charge and had been awarded grants from the Orange County Transportation Authority for the project.
With Caltrans’ approval, the city took the lead following a 2011 settlement agreement with the transportation department and the Hunt Club, the gated community along Ortega Highway. That agreement provided details on the aesthetics and physical scope of the widening.
Traffic begins to back up as vehicles approach the Ortega Highway “chokepoint” during the morning commute on Wednesday, May 8. Photo: Shawn Raymundo
Caltrans will hold a public meeting over the Ortega Widening project’s recently released environmental assessment on June 25 at Kinoshita Elementary School. Photo: Shawn Raymundo
The 2017 Grand Jury report, which criticized the city council for causing the delays, explained that after a new city council was elected in 2014, it “sought to oppose the widening project despite the language” in the agreement “specifying that the signing parties and their successors would not oppose efforts to complete” the project.
The project did gain a bit of traction in December 2015, when the councilmembers approved a design contract. However, the following month, the council backtracked on their decision, voting to rescind the $1.5 million service agreement with Anderson-Penna Partners.
The vote during that Jan. 5, 2016 meeting went 3-1-1, with then then-Mayor Pam Patterson, Mayor Pro Tem Kerry Ferguson, and former Councilmember John Perry in favor; former Councilmember Sam Allevato opposed; and Councilmember Derek Reeve absent.
That vote led to the OCTA requiring the city to return an advance funding of $705,095. The city had spent $175,170 of those funds toward the project, so $185,170 in city coffers was used to pay back what had been used, including $10,000 in interest on the grant funds, the report explained.
The council’s decision to renege on the contract eventually led to the OCTA taking over the project. The report also goes on to note that the city’s actions, causing “unnecessary delays,” meant that San Juan missed out on having influence over the project’s design.
“In rejecting the role as lead agency, the City also lost an advantage of having some influence over potential design aspects that could be tailored to the particular aesthetics and culture of San Juan Capistrano,” it stated.
In the city’s response to the report, the council acknowledged the delays but disputed the notion that they were unnecessary, because the impacts of such major highway projects affect motorists and residents and, therefore, should require extensive review and consideration.
“It is not uncommon for major highway projects to undergo multiple reviews and consideration of options before final implementation,” the council’s response said. “The costs of those ‘delays’ are inherent in the process.”
Connecting the Dots
During her State of the South County Address last month, OC Board Supervisor Lisa Bartlett touched on the Ortega widening project, noting its significance to traffic relief efforts in the southern region, as well as her own alleviation proposal.
“With regard to regional mobility, I believe we need to enhance regional mobility. We have more development that is taking place in Orange County and South Orange County, and we also have to think about what are we going to do if we have a major emergency: ‘how can we get out of town?’ ” she said during the April 11 address.
Late last year, Bartlett proposed a road alignment plan that would connect the new Los Patrones Parkway from Cow Camp Road to Avenida La Pata, running along the east side of the Prima Deschecha Landfill.
Her alignment plan would essentially serve as an alternative to the Transportation Corridor Agencies’ proposals that intend to extend the 241 Toll Road to the I-5 by passing through San Clemente and parts of San Juan Capistrano.
“We need something that we can actually get accomplished,” she said, explaining that she worked with OC Public Works Director Shane Silsby to help draw up her plan.
“If we can get to La Pata in a reasonable fashion, closer to the San Clemente side, I think that’s all we need, but in conjunction with two other projects,” she said.
One of those projects is the Ortega widening, and the other is to extend the HOV lane on the I-5 from Avenida Pico to the county line.
“That really solves our long-term regional mobility needs for well into the future, and it doesn’t mean any eminent domain, it doesn’t run through communities,” Bartlett said. “Even though it doesn’t connect to I-5, and when I talk to people about the projects, I say . . . ‘Would you rather have 80% of something or 100% of nothing, because right now we have nothing?’ ”
Bartlett went on to state that there will be more happening in the future.