Construction projects and congestion causing headaches
By Shelley Murphy
“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy.” So goes the popular Gershwin jazz standard. But, this time of year, most motorists driving along the stretch of freeway between San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente would disagree with the composer.
This summer I’ve spent more time traveling the freeways than usual. Recently, my older son moved into his first apartment and I’ve logged many miles and hours on Interstate 5—once driving a 20-foot U-Haul—with my younger son serving as co-pilot.
Maneuvering the massive truck was a piece of cake compared to my morning commute to the Mission Viejo mall for back-to-school shopping. Last Saturday, my car crept onto the congested Vista Hermosa on-ramp to merge with bumper-to-bumper traffic bottlenecked on the northbound I-5 freeway.
The frequent stops and starts stalling traffic in both directions of freeway between San Clemente and San Juan leaves me frustrated and contemplating contacting the British designers marketing the world’s first flying bicycle. Instead, I decided to ask an expert for answers.
I spoke with Joel Zlotnik, media relations officer of the Orange County Transportation Authority, to gain insight into the stubborn traffic jams plaguing our stretch of freeway and the plans to alleviate gridlock.
Some of our traffic congestion can be blamed on population density.
“There are too many vehicles for the number of lanes. The capacity on the freeway isn’t enough to handle the number of cars,” said Zlotnick.
San Clemente’s population grew 20.6 percent between the years 2000 and 2005 and today’s count is 65,542 citizens.
OCTA projects the number of cars on the south county stretch of road to increase significantly over the next 20 years. The figures add-up to trouble for freeways, prompting OCTA to implement the I-5 Avenida Pico to San Juan Creek Road Improvement Project.
The project costs $275 million, covers 5.7 miles and rolls out in three segments. Over the course of the next four years it adds continuous access carpool lanes in both directions, improves southbound sight distance and reconstructs the Avenida Pico interchange.
In early 2014, freeway construction starts in San Juan Capistrano, working south to extend the carpool lanes in both directions between San Jan Creek Road and Avenida Pico.
The second part of the plan improves the sight distance on the southbound curve north of Pacific Coast Highway. Sight distance is the length of roadway visible to a driver.
“It’s kind of a tight curve, you can’t really see around the bend that far and that in general will cause people to slow down and lead to some of that congestion,” said Zlotnick. “The project straightens that curve out a little bit and makes it a little bit longer to be able to see better down the freeway.”
“Aha,” I thought, finally an explanation for the seemingly senseless slowing along that stretch of freeway.
The final phase begins in late 2014 and reconstructs the Pico interchange including widening on- and off-ramps and rebuilding the Pico bridge. Construction of the I-5 improvement project is estimated to wrap up in 2017.
While the project aims to alleviate traffic, San Clemente’s still stuck with inherent geographic gridlock.
The I-5 freeway serves as a main artery between San Diego and Los Angeles. “It’s one of the freeways that we see heavier volumes during the weekend than during the week. And, in summertime the weekend volumes pickup,” said Zlotnick.
But, hope looms on the horizon as the county pushes its plan to link San Clemete’s Avenida La Pata to San Juan’s Avenida La Pata, giving San Clemente residents an alternative to the northbound I-5. Scheduled to break ground January 2014, the $92 million project spans 4.1 miles and is expected to take 40 months to complete.
Facing four years of construction, south county motorists may find themselves singing along with the Beatles’ classic “Drive My Car”—“Beep beep, beep beep, yeah!”
Shelley Murphy has lived in San Clemente with her husband and two sons for the past 14 years. She’s a freelance writer and contributor to the SC Times since 2006.