San Juan thinking twice on highway upgrade

Times Staff Writer

Along tree-lined Ortega Highway in front of Susan Merchant’s San Juan Capistrano home, life unfolds both peacefully and fitfully. Residents stroll and some clomp down the road on horseback in pastoral moments interrupted only by the traffic’s roar.

“This morning I tried crossing on my horse and I needed help because no one would stop,” Merchant said.

She is among those in town who fear that what little bucolic lifestyle is left in San Juan is now in jeopardy.

Caltrans has plans to remove old sycamore and pepper trees, install sound walls and medians and widen a short segment of Highway 74, a proposal that has some residents and city officials concerned that the town’s historic charm hangs in the balance.

After all, the city is home to Mission San Juan Capistrano. In addition, San Juan touts its rancho lineage on its website as, “Equestrian Capital of the West Coast.”


Last week, officials hired an outside legal firm to examine the project’s technical data and, if necessary, sue Caltrans after the agency rejected a request for an environmental impact report.

Caltrans may still order a full environmental study if new and significant facts emerge regarding the project’s impact, said Pam Gorniak, a Caltrans spokeswoman. Otherwise, she said, no EIR may be needed.

Widening the highway from two to four lanes would indeed help eliminate a bottleneck on the Ortega Highway, Mayor Sam Allevato said. The narrow, 30-mile twisting highway is one of the few connectors between Orange and Riverside counties. “But by adding sound walls, retaining walls [and] realignment of sidewalks,” he said, “it will change the nature of the road.”

The problem is in the details, said residents attending a Caltrans meeting last week.

Some expressed frustration over a Caltrans draft report calling for the elimination of more than 100 eucalyptus, sycamore and pepper trees and construction of 14-foot sound walls with no additional safety features such as a traffic signal to help pedestrians and equestrians cross the road.

“It is ludicrous to say that the impact on our community will be insignificant,” said Irvine Ranch heiress Joan Irvine Smith, a local property owner.

Smith, a preservationist, quoted from the report saying that, “after construction, Ortega would feel less like a residential community drive and more of a thoroughfare.”

Former Sheriff Brad Gates, who also owns property in the area, said he supported the project to help ease congestion, but has urged Caltrans to extend a sound wall that would end just short of where his property line begins.

Dee Monaco fears that once the road near her home is widened, the speed limit will be raised. “We’re also not looking forward to the construction delays and noise,” she said.

Other residents, including Mark Campaigne, questioned whether the road should be widened at all. “This would encourage more traffic,” he said.

In February, Caltrans began widening a section several miles up the highway, part of a $40-million project that will take three years to add shoulders, guardrails and turnouts.

Ortega Highway has emerged as a commuter link to Orange County from southern Riverside County, a purpose for which it was never designed when it was built in 1929 along what had been an Indian trail. Planners say the expanded road will accommodate at least 35,000 vehicles a day -- more than three times its current capacity.

Without the widening, Caltrans says, congestion will only worsen, with “significant delays” at average speeds of 35 mph or less. Residents have two weeks to submit their opinions, which will be evaluated by the agency. The $21-million project isn’t scheduled to start until 2010.

Caltrans could modify the project by adding sound walls of transparent plexiglass, which is more visually appealing than solid concrete, officials said. But with growth imminent in the county’s nearby unincorporated area, highway widening to accommodate more cars may be inevitable, said Scott Bollens, a UC Irvine professor of planning.

Rancho Mission Viejo Company has already received approval to build as many as 14,000 homes just east of San Juan Capistrano.

And major thoroughfares like Antonio Parkway, which connects to Ortega Highway, and La Pata Avenue, which will be widened and extended from the Ortega into San Clemente, are likely to carry thousands of new homeowners.

Meanwhile a new high school, San Juan Hills, will open off La Pata in September.

“We want to make the project as nice as we can to preserve the historic nature of the community,” Councilman Tom Hribar said.

But the expanded highway may bring more than just added lanes.

“As sycamore trees are replaced by sound walls,” UCI’s Bollens said, “the sense of place” is transformed into “the place-lessness and hyper-functionality of the interconnected urban and metropolitan grid.”