For years, cars along Del Prado Avenue's old-fashioned concrete roadway in Dana Point have numbered a little more than 1,000 per day--on busy days.
Sometime this summer, the traffic will jump suddenly to 18,000 or 19,000 cars a day, according to an Orange County traffic engineer, and life will be altered forever for owners of the small businesses scattered among now-vacant lots along the three-quarter-mile stretch.
The change will occur when Coast Highway becomes a one-way thoroughfare carrying traffic north through the heart of Dana Point's commercial district, while Del Prado, which parallels Coast Highway on the ocean side, will carry southbound traffic.
Work on the project, known as the Dana Point couplet, now is under way between Street of the Blue Lantern at the northwest end of the community and Street of the Copper Lantern, 4,100 feet to the southeast. It is expected to be completed in late June, according to Wendell L. Hartman, construction manager for the county's Environmental Management Agency.
"And on the day the streets are opened," EMA senior engineer Ignacio Ochoa said, "Del Prado will immediately experience a change as it takes over about half of the 38,000 vehicles that presently use Coast Highway every day."
Merchants on Coast Highway also will be affected, although opinions differ about how and to what extent.
Frank Conners, who has operated a small department store in La Plaza just off Coast Highway for 26 years, said: "I don't know if it'll make all that much difference. I don't have a crystal ball. We'll just have to wait, but I do guess it'll be one of the biggest changes ever made in Dana Point."
Ron Oetgen, part owner of the Shell station at Street of the Amber Lantern, said he will find himself on the left hand side of all northbound traffic, and "from the standpoint of a service station, it will be taking away half our business."
But, he said, the change "will enhance the community . . . will allow for better traffic control, and anyway, the growth and development that is occurring is bringing in a lot of new residents who'll have to have their cars serviced."
On Del Prado, no one was complaining.
Bob Weiss, owner of the Ampra Paint Store, laughed and said: "Right now it's not so good, while they're tearing up the street before repaving. But when they're finished, I expect it'll be very good. All those people that have been going along Coast Highway will see us. All the other business people along Del Prado feel the same."
A few blocks away at a dress shop named Summer Tree, employee Christie Butler said she was happy not only at the prospect of greatly increased exposure, but at the new sidewalks for pedestrian trade.
Hartman said the project will include not only sidewalks, new curbs and gutters, but repaving of Del Prado with asphalt.
He said both Del Prado and Coast Highway will have three traffic lanes, plus lanes for parallel parking, left-turn lanes and bicycle lanes.
The California Department of Transportation gave the county permits to build on the state right-of-way, but the county is paying the estimated $1.15-million cost from road funds, Hartman said. A connected project, the construction of a new storm drain to alleviate flooding that has occurred on parts of Coast Highway, is expected to cost $397,000, of which Caltrans is paying $87,000.
Hartman said new traffic lights will be installed on Coast Highway at Blue Lantern and Copper Lantern, and on Del Prado at Golden Lantern. Currently, the only light is at Coast Highway and Golden Lantern.
"I truly believe the traffic signals will create a safer traffic flow," said Edward Conway, president of the Dana Point Chamber of Commerce. "The couplet itself is sure to encourage business along both Coast Highway and Del Prado, partly because it will create increased parking."
Matt Ehrhart, president of the Dana Point Specific Plan Board of Review, said six months ago "there was some negative skepticism" about the couplet plan.
"But now that we know more about it, about the traffic signals and extra parking and probably better flow of traffic, well, it seems most everyone in town has a more favorable feeling about it," he said.
One longstanding concern of merchants and residents has been the speed of traffic on Coast Highway, where the posted limit is 40 m.p.h., but where 55 m.p.h. traffic was not uncommon, said California Highway Patrol spokesman Ken Daily, "except when I'm driving a black-and-white (patrol car) along there."
It is hoped that the traffic signals will alleviate that worry, said Dave Kalman, a mechanic at the Shell station who watches the speeders day after day. If the signals don't slow drivers down, Kalman offered his own solution.
"When they get the couplet finished," he said, "I wish they'd rename Coast Highway and call it Coast Lane. It's a psychological thing. 'Highway' seems to mean speed. 'Lane' seems to mean go slow."
MP, GUS KELLER / Los Angeles Times