Sometime this afternoon, a tiny stretch of Camino Capistrano will reopen. And in a used-car lot a few hundred yards north, Ron Shearer and Dave Velton will be rejoicing.
It’s been more than five years since El Nino rains closed the two-lane link between Laguna Niguel and San Juan Capistrano; more than five years since the Capistrano Car Co. has had a customer cruise in from the south. About the only thing that has kept the business strip alive was demand for In-N-Out Burgers, which brought throngs of customers to the intersection with Avery Parkway just off Interstate 5.
“We’ve been on a dead-end road for five years, and it’s been killing us,” said Shearer, who co-owns the lot with Velton.
“Basically, we’ve been in a survival mode since the road went out.”
After a series of pounding storms saturated the area, the hillside collapsed about halfway between Avery Parkway and Junipero Serra Road on Feb. 26, 1998, damaging the adjacent railroad tracks and the slope supporting the road.
Since the freeway frontage road was barricaded, traffic has been down 80%, and his business is off 40%, Shearer estimates.
Not every business on the Laguna Niguel side of Camino Capistrano has weathered the dry spell. Buffy’s Family Restaurant closed in the summer of 2000, after years of serving truck drivers who were halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego.
Some truckers still pull off the freeway, park their big-rigs on the side of the road and stop in for a quick meal at one of the three burger joints.
But getting back on the freeway often takes longer than the meal, because truckers are forced to turn their rig around on the two-lane road to nowhere.
When the barricades come down this afternoon, no such gymnastics will be required.
Truckers will be able to continue south to the freeway entrance at Junipero Serra or motor on into downtown San Juan Capistrano.
The reopening of Camino Capistrano -- which parallels Interstate 5 and hugs the railroad tracks and Oso Creek -- will be low-key, just barricades coming down on the last south Orange County road closed by the storms of 1998, city officials said.
Brian Perry, a senior civil engineer with the city, said the road would have reopened three months ago, but winter rains delayed construction.
So what happened during the previous five years?
The short answer: Stabilizing the ground under the tracks and road took far longer than projected.
Restoring the slope alone took about three years and cost the Orange County Transportation Authority about $3 million, city officials said.
Another $350,000 was spent repairing Camino Capistrano itself, which was displaced during the landslide, as well as the water line that runs under the road. Perry said the city contributed about $80,000. Federal funding covered the rest.
“The impacts would have been much greater had it been a more traveled road,” Perry said. “It’s basically a through road and it’s a convenience issue as much as anything.”
Maybe so, but the Capistrano Car Co. guys are happy to have through traffic again.
Shearer and Velton are girding for their first weekend of drivers from San Juan Capistrano.
Their lot is full, and they have a promotion ready: The first 50 customers coming from the south will get a $5 gift certificate to In-N-Out.