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.

About The Author Staff

comments (4)

  • It doesn’t help when you design the Hermosa exit by taking lanes out narrowing the freeway.Before the Hermosa exit was built there were zero backup issues.
    30 year SC resident here.

  • Why didn’t you take PCH to Camino Cap or Golden Lantern and get inland that way?

  • Most of you San Clemente residents should shut your yap when it comes to the traffic along the 5 in your neck of the woods. Because the hippies and surfers of San Clemente decided to shut down the extension of the toll into San Clemente, you guys sealed your own fate. And for what?!? So some little frog can have his home. Not like he couldn’t move down the road a bit with all that land under camp Pendleton. Drives me nuts, that toll road extension would have alleviated a lot of the problems we are seeing today. Now it takes me twice as long to get to San Diego from la as it did only a couple years ago. The city planners / engineers had it right, the only problem was the stubborn San Clemente residents who were so obtuse. Now we will spend the next 10 years in shitty traffic on the 5 in your beautiful city. So you traded an onramp and toll road coming together at basilone for millions of gallons of smog coming out of tail pipes sitting bumper to bumper in your city, smart thinking.

    Just my $ .02

comments (4)

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>