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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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Carmageddon Coming to San Juan Capistrano

The Mayans predicted that the world would end in December 2012.  South County commuters who rely on the I-5/Ortega Highway interchange may soon believe that the Mayans were right.  Carmageddon, in the form of the I-5/Ortega Highway Interchange construction project, is coming!

Caltrans has unveiled plans for the new 5/Ortega interchange.  Assuming that funding for the $84-million project is available, the agency expects to select contractors in December 2012 with actual construction commencing in early 2012.  This San Juan Capistrano Patch article has some more information about the project and its timeline and the City of San Juan Capistrano maintains a web page for the 5/Ortega project, although it is somewhat out of date.

For years, the 5/Ortega interchange has been identified by the Orange County Transportation Authority as a “choke point” – a location of heavy traffic congestion. The 5/Ortega interchange is congested at nearly every time of day, but is particularly bad during morning and afternoon commuter periods.  Further, the design of the interchange results in clogged intersections, dangerous traffic patterns and inhibits the movement of emergency vehicles and first responders.  At times, traffic backs up onto the 5 freeway.

The safety concern isn’t theoretical.  According to a California Department of Transportation project study (PDF) accidents along Ortega Highway in the vicinity of the interchange occur at a rate more than twice as high as the state average for similar facilities.  The study found that “the total actual accident rate was 7.31 accidents per million vehicle miles (a/mvm) compared to the statewide average accident rate of 3.16 a/mvm for similar facilities. This high rate may be attributed to a backup of traffic along Ortega Highway because of operational problems at the three closely spaced intersections, which include the I-5 southbound ramps, the I-5 northbound ramps, and Del Obispo Street.”

Several possible re-designs for the 5/Ortega interchange were considered, and in January 2009 “Alternative 3” was selected as the preferred project design.  A schematic drawing of Alternative 3 is presented below:

Schematic Drawing of Alternative 3 for the 5/Ortega Interchange

Among other reasons for its selection, Alternative 3 does not require the condemnation or acquisition of any of the San Juan Elementary School buildings.  The project proposal does call for the elimination of the two Chevron gas stations, the  Jack in the Box and the Arby’s.  Below is an aerial view of the Alternative 3 design that makes it easier to see the impact on affected businesses and property owners:

Aerial View of “Alternative 3″ (Preferred 5/Ortega Interchange Design)

As part of the proposed design, the project will realign Del Obispo Street and Ortega Highway so that Ortega Highway curves into Del Obispo Street, eliminating a constant source of congestion where commuter traffic backs up waiting for the left turn signal from Ortega onto Del Obispo.

The Ortega/Del Obispo intersection was just one reason why the area surrounding the 5/Ortega interchange was identified by readers of the Patch as the worst traffic in the city.

Part of the back-up is because people exiting southbound I-5 at Ortega who want to continue west must first wait at the light at Ortega, then wait for a left-turn light at Del Obispo, Lavelle said. The new configuration will eliminate those turns.

“There is no longer the right hand turn from the southbound I-5 off ramp and then an immediate left-hand turn to go down Del Obispo. It will be a smooth flowing transition from turning right at the off ramp onto Ortega Highway directly down to Del Obispo,” she said.

The rendering of Alternative 3 below shows the “Super Curve” that will transition drivers seamlessly from Ortega Highway onto Del Obispo.  Drivers looking to remain on Ortega as it enters historic downtown San Juan Capistrano will make what amounts to a right turn.

Rendering of the Redesigned 5/Ortega Interchange and the Ortega “Super Curve” onto Del Obispo

The City of San Juan Capistrano is also using the project as an opportunity to brand itself with the redesigned interchange.  At the City’s request, Caltrans has agreed to install aesthetic pavers on the bridge’s sidewalk – pavers that the City will extend into the downtown area at its own expense.  The City is also considering other opportunities presented by the construction project, including installing decorative retaining walls or an overhead welcome sign.  More information on the aesthetics of the project is available in this Orange County Register article.

While the end result will be a welcome relief for South County commuters, the construction that must occur between now and then is no doubt going to be a massive headache.  Caltrans has informed the San Juan Capistrano City Council that it expects to stake the area as early as December 2012, with actual construction starting in February 2013. The project is scheduled to be completed around 2015.  That’s two years of significant disruption.  More than just lane closures and construction cones, the project will actually require the complete closure of the Ortega Highway on and off ramps and the bridge over the 5 for extended periods of time.  For much of the remainder of the project timeline, Ortega Highway may only permit a single lane or two in either direction.

According to a San Juan Capistrano Patch article on local road closures:

The first phase of construction entails rebuilding the Ortega Highway overpass, first demolishing the south side of the bridge and diverting traffic to two lanes on the north side. It also includes widening the overpass and diverting traffic to southbound lanes and building the first portions of the realigned Del Obispo and a new loop-shaped northbound on-ramp.

During this first phase, the southbound on-ramp will be closed temporarily so it can be raised 4 feet; the existing northbound on-ramp will be closed to allow for construction of the new one; and Ortega Highway will be closed to traffic to complete the reconstruction of the overpass.

In addition to the commuters who will be inconvenienced, the local business community is not looking forward to the impacts of extended road closures in and around downtown San Juan Capistrano.  Already reeling from an ailing economy, the San Juan Capistrano Chamber of Commerce is preparing for the adverse impact on local businesses.

It is clear that the 5/Ortega interchange project will be among the most disruptive construction projects South Orange County has ever experienced.  Residents, commuters and businesses alike would do well to familiarize themselves with the project and its impact.  For those who want to get even more acquainted with this South County version of Carmageddon, the 5/Ortega construction project even has a Facebook page.  It is somewhat telling, however, that at least as of press time, the project does not have any friends.

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