Major construction at the interchange will effect San Juan Capistrano and neighboring cities
By Brian Park
Traffic has long been a concern of many San Juan Capistrano residents, but in the coming year, those concerns will be shared with residents of cities to the south, including San Clemente.
Caltrans is scheduled to begin major construction for the massive Interstate 5/Ortega Highway Interchange project in mid-February. It’s a project that’s been on the minds of traffic officials, San Juan Capistrano city leaders and residents for more than a decade and will likely stay that way for at least two more, when it’s scheduled to be completed in the spring of 2015.
The $86.2 million project will completely rebuild the Ortega Highway bridge over I-5, construct a new northbound loop on-ramp, reconfigure the northern portion of Del Obispo Street leading to the bridge and apply several changes to existing on- and off-ramps.
“It’s a pretty substantial project,” said Gloria Roberts, chief spokesperson for Caltrans’ local District 12. “We’re doing demolition and building a whole new bridge.”
Traffic engineers identified the interchange as a major choke point and initiated a study of the area in 2000, according to Caltrans’ 2009 project report. At the time the report was published, the overburdened interchange carried about 99,000 cars per day. Engineers said the current configuration could not accommodate a projected increase in traffic of around 121,000 cars by 2030.
Within the project’s scope area, studies also showed that accidents along Ortega Highway occurred at twice the rate of the state average and “at a much higher rate” on the I-5 southbound off-ramp for similar areas. According to the report, the roadways in the area featured nonstandard lane widths—10 and 11 feet, when Caltrans requires 12 feet—and that Ortega Highway, which predates I-5, did not have the required shoulders—about 8 feet—for bridge separation.
“This is a whole reconfiguration,” Roberts said. “Part of this project is to relieve congestion because the area is growing.”
Although San Juan Capistrano will bear the brunt of construction, increased congestion along detour routes make this a local problem for all motorists traveling through the city.
“It is a regional challenge,” former city council member Laura Freese said. “Dana Point, Laguna Niguel and our other neighbors to the north and south are definitely going to feel it because they use that interchange and they use Del Obispo and our other streets to get to the freeway. They’re all going to have to figure out alternate routes.”
One of Freese’s last acts as a council member included establishing the Economic Preservation Committee, a group made up of city officials and local business owners that aim to curb the adverse effects of the project on business, especially in downtown.
Together, the group has already formulated several ideas and voiced some of their concerns with Caltrans and the department’s contracted project management firm CALTROP. Following Caltrans’ closure of a Chevron and Jack in the Box, both on the corner of Del Obispo Street and Ortega Highway, the committee submitted their own design for a welcome banner to be wrapped around raised chain-link fences. Caltrans combined their own design standards with the committee’s suggestion to produce the current banners, which serve to welcome and inform motorists.
The committee has also reached out to the city and the Orange County Transportation Authority to consider lowering rates to use Historic Town Center Park for events, creating a trolley service to carry passengers from JSerra Catholic High School into downtown and decreasing Metrolink fare prices.
Caltrans is bound by strict rules that prohibit promotional projects that do not focus on traffic, according to Roberts. Caltrans and CALTROP have both taken on community outreach efforts, however, through informational meetings, publishing reading material and social media tools, like Facebook (www.facebook.com/ortegainterchangeproejct) and Twitter (@OrtegaHighway), to inform residents of construction updates.
By the end of the month, Caltrans expects to have a complete project schedule, according to Roberts. For now, the city and the committee has been told that construction work would be limited to evening and early morning hours. Full closures are expected on the northern portion of Del Obispo Street, going as far west as El Camino Real, for two separate periods of three and four weeks. Proposed dates and times of the closures will be included in the project schedule.
For more information about the I-5/Ortega Highway Interchange project, visit www.dot.ca.gov/dist12/5-74EIR.htm.