By Jim Shilander

City leaders received very pleasant news Wednesday, as the low bid for the La Pata extension project came in well under the expected $85 million price tag.

The three bids for the project were opened Wednesday at the Hall of Administration in Santa Ana. The low bid on the project was $61 million from Papich Construction, a firm located in Grover Beach. The highest bid on the project was $90.5 million.

The project will connect San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente.

Mayor Bob Baker, who had not heard about the bid until Thursday, said he was “thrilled” by the result.

“Let’s start digging tomorrow,” Baker joked. “I can’t wait to get under construction. It’s going to be great for our community, and a terrific traffic reducer for the freeway.”

Councilwoman Lori Donchak said she extremely happy about the news but remained cautious.

“My reaction was obviously one of great elation, because we really need to have a connection made between San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano,” she said. “I’m very hopeful.”

The Orange County Board of Supervisors will formally vote to award the bid at an upcoming meeting. Donchak said the county still must do due diligence to make sure the bids are “apples to apples” especially given the large difference between the bids.

“It’s some of the most challenging topography in the state,” Donchak said.

Supervisor Pat Bates called the project the most significant transportation development in the fifth district since the widening of the El Toro portion of Interstate 5, and one of the biggest arterial connections since the connection of Golden Lantern in Dana Point to inland areas. Bates said the low bid might also help with the funding gap that still persists for the project. Enough funding is in place to connect the two cities, but not necessarily all of the side projects involved with the proposal.

Donchak, who serves on the board of the Orange County Transit Authority, said there has been a need for years for the project, both to provide a “back door” to San Clemente, and to relieve traffic on I-5.

The project is expected to break ground in early 2014.

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