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Rancho Ortega Blog discusses matters of public interest in South Orange County, including the communities of San Juan Capistrano, Ladera Ranch and Rancho Mission Viejo.

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Caltrans and the City of San Juan Capistrano Should Temporarily Connect El Horno Street to Rancho Viejo Road

With construction on the I-5/Ortega Highway interchange project beginning next month, Carmageddon is almost here.  Of course, we’ve been warning people since early August with posts such as “Carmageddon Coming to San Juan Capistrano.”  To aid local residents and commuters in planning, we’ve described the upcoming road closures and detours, and previewed the construction phases of the I-5/Ortega Highway interchange project.

In this post, however, we ask a question: has Caltrans and the City of San Juan Capistrano done everything it could have to mitigate the impact of this massive two-year construction project on the residents and commuters of San Juan Capistrano? In Caltrans’ published map of project detours, motorists are encouraged to avoid the I-5/Ortega bridge by using the San Juan Creek undercrossing to the south, or the Junipero Serra undercrossing to the north.  Unfortunately, these two undercrossings have limited capacity and are already bottlenecks during peak commuting hours.  Adding even a fraction of Ortega Highway’s traffic to either of these streets is going to bring these two detours to a maddening halt.  But what if there was the ability to open a third undercrossing even closer to Ortega Highway as a means of easing congestion in and around San Juan Capistrano?  And what if that third undercrossing was already in place?

Proposed location for a possible temporary El Horno Connection

Caltrans and the City of San Juan Capistrano should temporarily connect El Horno Street to Rancho Viejo Road.

Currently, El Horno Street  runs under the 5 Freeway, but dead-ends at a chain link fence.  It is accessible to pedestrians, cyclists and horses, but closed to vehicle traffic.

View from the terminus of El Horno Street under the 5 Freeway

Connecting El Horno Street to Rancho Viejo Road is politically unpopular.  There was a time when the City of San Juan Capistrano had planned to build a new City Hall on the vacant lot adjacent to the potential intersection of El Horno and Rancho Viejo, but those plans died and with it died the need for connecting El Horno.  There are many good reasons why El Horno does not currently connect to Rancho Viejo – El Horno Street runs through Mission Flats, an historic residential community.  Furthermore, El Horno Street was never designed to function as a throughway – traffic will need to snake  through several other streets between Camino Capistrano and Rancho Viejo.  Finally, the connection itself is susceptible to flooding and its engineering is substandard for vehicle use and needs to be upgraded.  Let’s be clear – we do not support opening El Horno to traffic on a permanent basis.  To do so would do more harm than good.  But we do support – and encourage Caltrans and the City of San Juan Capistrano to consider – the temporary use of El Horno to relieve congestion during the reconstruction of the Ortega Highway/I-5 interchange.

El Horno Street passes through Mission Flats, an historic residential neighborhood ill-equipped to handle heavy traffic

The primary argument against connecting El Horno to Rancho Viejo is that it will destroy the character of an historic, residential neighborhood that is not equipped to handle high traffic volumes.  This is true.  But consider that the area bounded by Junipero Serra Road to the north, San Juan Creek to the south, Camino Capistrano to the west and Rancho Viejo Road to east is going to be a traffic nightmare in any event.  Residents of those areas are going to face crippling traffic just trying to leave their homes in the mornings, and businesses in the area are going to be significantly and adversely affected by congestion.  It’s not a question of protecting these neighborhoods from traffic problems: they, like all of us, will struggle with the traffic.  In this case, opening El Horno as a third underpass might actually get traffic moving a little bit and might actually facilitate some commerce for businesses in the affected area.  And by the way, whether or not El Horno is connected to Rancho Viejo Road, Caltrans and the City ought to restripe Rancho Viejo Road to two lanes in each direction prior to the Ortega Highway closures.  Rancho Viejo may be wide enough to do so on a temporary basis without the need for road widening.

View of the El Horno underpass from Rancho Viejo Road. Rancho Viejo needs to be restriped to accommodate two lanes of traffic in each direction.  The vacant lot to the right of the image was the proposed (now obsolete) location of a new City Hall for San Juan Capistrano.

Consider also that El Horno is merely an underpass, not a freeway on and off ramp.  Most of the detoured traffic is going to be headed to or from the freeway.  Motorists would not use El Horno for freeway access, meaning that while it will relieve some of the congestion in the area, it won’t absorb any of the freeway traffic.  Rather, opening El Horno would help those who most need help – local residents simply trying to move between east and west San Juan Capistrano to conduct their daily affairs without incurring a 30 minute delay on each leg of the trip.  Opening El Horno to through traffic would also increase the ability of first responders to cross under the 5 with lesser traffic impacts on public health and safety.  El Horno Street trail is slated for aesthetic enhancement  as part of the San Juan Capistrano Historic Town Center master plan.  One additional intangible benefit of opening El Horno is that such enhancement could be accomplished in connection with the steps taken to make El Horno safe for vehicle traffic.

Our fictional markup of Caltrans’ detour map if El Horno Street were connected to Rancho Viejo Road.

Unfortunately, Caltrans and the City should have upgraded and opened El Horno well before the Ortega/I-5 project began.  It is clear that they have not done so and perhaps it is too late now.  Maybe there is no funding to connect El Horno, even if the political will existed.  But it is disappointing to consider that the upcoming Carmageddon might have been mitigated a little bit had this proposal been implemented with sufficient foresight.  We understand the valid concerns with opening El Horno on a permanent basis, which is why we oppose doing so.  However, the Oretga/I-5 interchange project is an extraordinary challenge for San Juan Capistrano.  Temporarily connecting El Horno Street to Rancho Viejo Road (and restriping Rancho Viejo to two lanes in each directions) would go a long way towards relieving construction-related traffic congestion and facilitating local traffic in and around San Juan Capistrano.  It should have been done before, and if it is not too late, local authorities should consider doing so now.

1 comment to Caltrans and the City of San Juan Capistrano Should Temporarily Connect El Horno Street to Rancho Viejo Road

  • bicyclista

    If opening up El Horno is what it takes to improve the bike trail under the freeway there, I am all in favor. Well written article, thanks!