Ortega Highway construction will soon draw to a close
By Jan Siegel
After almost two years of enduring traffic hardship on the Ortega Highway, the much-anticipated interchange improvement project is scheduled to be open by the end of the month, or at the very least, early September…of this year!
Public improvements were the main reason for forming the San Juan Capistrano Chamber of Commerce when it was first organized in 1923. One of the most important projects was the construction of Ortega Highway. The chamber organized an effort to get the Board of Supervisors to commit funds to the construction of the new Highway. Not only was there opposition within the Board of Supervisors, but many in the city did not want the project to proceed. George Jeffrey, who represented this area on the board, was opposed to the project. But the chamber would not give up.
Carl Hankey was named chairman of the chamber, and for five years he tried to garner support for the project from the Orange County supervisors and Riverside County officials. Hankey was not successful and eventually turned the committee over to Fred Stoffel.
One of the main difficulties in acquiring the funds for the project was a disagreement over what to name the highway. Riverside County insisted it be called the Elsinore-Capistrano Road, and Orange County was just as insistent that it be called the Capistrano-Elsinore Road. Neither side would give in to a common name change.
Fortunately, Fr. St. John O’Sullivan, pastor of the Mission and a chamber board member, came up with a name that eventually everyone could agree upon. O’Sullivan suggested naming the highway Ortega, after José Francisco Ortega, a scout with the Portola Expedition who, along with Fr. Junípero Serra, was one of the first Spaniards to enter this valley. Supervisor Jeffery agreed to support the project with the name change—his wife was a direct descendant of Ortega.
Funds for the project totaled $750,000. The 32.5-mile project was constructed between 1930 and 1932 for $581,952—six months ahead of time and $168,048 under budget. In mid-May of 1932, Ortega Highway was opened to limited traffic.
Today, that project would have cost about $5 million. It was still a bargain by any standard.
In 2007, work on the 3.3-mile stretch of Ortega Highway from the San Juan Creek Bridge to the Riverside County line became a $40 million dollar project. Funding for the interchange project came from the State Transportation Improvement Program, Corridor Mobility Improvement Act and county and local funds. The total cost for the project today is $86,214,000.
As you enjoy the new Ortega off-ramp and the ease of traffic moving through our town, take a “Moment in Time” and reflect upon the history that brought us to this point, including all of the people who have been instrumental in securing this roadway.
Author’s Note: The chamber of commerce was forced to discontinue during the depression, because so many businesses were failing, but returned to San Juan Capistrano in the 1950s.
Jan Siegel is a 27-year resident of San Juan Capistrano. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years and has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 17 years. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.