San Clemente is about to learn what it would take to widen I-5 through the historic heart of town.
The Orange County Transportation Authority is preparing to launch an 18-month preliminary study to analyze how to add one carpool lane in each direction from Avenida Pico to the San Diego County line.
It's part of the OCTA's master plan, recently given urgency due to a San Diego Association of Governments proposal to place a 12-lane I-5 freeway at Orange County's eight-lane doorstep.
That raises nightmarish visions of a bottlenecked entrance to San Clemente.
But widening I-5 in downtown San Clemente figures to be costly and could be tricky, with tight tolerances, impacting homes and businesses. A wider freeway would not only need a broader roadbed but longer bridges, new sound walls and re-engineered on- and off-ramps.
The San Diego Association and Caltrans are proposing widening I-5 by 2035 to 12 lanes from La Jolla to the north end of Oceanside, 27 miles north. Beyond that, a long-term plan from the San Diego Association shows four toll express lanes from Oceanside north to the county line.
“Knowing that SANDAG plans to put in the toll lanes makes fixing the bottleneck absolutely necessary,” said Lori Donchak, a San Clemente City Council member and OCTA board member.
But there's a catch.
27 YEARS DOWN THE ROAD
The San Diego County group is figuring four toll express lanes will be needed based on population and traffic projections, but it's too far out to be certain.
“These toll lanes are included in the last decade of the plan, 2041-2050,” said Helen Gao, spokeswoman for the San Diego Association. “They would be built only if there is demand and only if they can pay for themselves through tolls.”
For now, OCTA is focusing on a fully funded $275million widening of I-5 set to begin construction this month, adding a carpool lane in each direction from San Juan Creek Road to just past Avenida Pico, 5.7 miles. It could be completed by the end of 2016.
A MORE IMMEDIATE NEED
A widening from Pico to the San Diego County line would be about 3 miles.
Some San Clemente residents have voiced fears that ending the southbound carpool lane at Pico will create a bottleneck right away, narrowing I-5 there from five to four lanes on an uphill.
Donchak has advocated carrying the carpool lanes south to the county line. Traffic counts haven't justified a widening, OCTA spokesman Joel Zlotnik said, so it wasn't among projects covered by the county's voter-approved Measure M half-cent sales tax. The prospect of a bottleneck coming north as a result of the San Diego group's I-5 widening changed that thinking.
HOW MANY LANES?
OCTA's proposed “2035 Preferred Scenario” map adds two carpool lanes to I-5 from Pico to the county line. Or could it be four, to match San Diego County's possible scenario?
“Obviously we want to put in one lane (each way),” Zlotnik said. It's early in the process, he said, and a study would have to look at what can fit within I-5's San Clemente right-of-way and any options.
“One of OCTA's major considerations, along with the cities, is minimizing any kind of impacts to the cities,” he said. “We want to make sure that we're sensitive to the community and the right of way, and be sure that the San Diego County plan is not creating a bottleneck at the county line. We'll try to work with them to make sure it doesn't happen.”
The I-5 widening in downtown San Clemente is part of a proposed new long-range OCTA plan that foresees upgrades to freeways, including roadways, high-demand bus routes, Metrolink, bike routes, and signal timing. It's an update of a 2010 plan. OCTA gives details at octa.net and offers an online survey.
A plan will develop this spring, with an open house for the public set for 5 to 7 p.m. May 7 at OCTA, 550 S. Main St., Orange.
Plans for toll road remain unchanged
Widening I-5 from Avenida Pico to the county line will not bump the unfinished 241 toll road off Orange County's master transportation plan.
OCTA spokesman Joel Zlotnik said the county's master plan has long anticipated carpool lanes along I-5 to the county line, plus a 16-mile extension of the 241 from Oso Parkway to I-5, rounding out the county's transportation network.
“The 241 completion still needs to go through, regardless,” Zlotnik said.
OCTA's 2035 transportation map shows both the 241 extension to I-5 at Basilone Road and the carpool lanes through downtown San Clemente.
In 2008, the California Coastal Commission rejected the Transportation Corridor Agencies' request for a coastal development permit, and the group's appeal to the U.S. Department of Commerce was rejected.
Now, the group is trying to win approval for a 5-mile “Tesoro” extension of the 241 to near Ortega Highway. A California Regional Water Quality Control Board rejected a permit for it. The board said the plans relied on a 7-year-old environmental study that was part of a bigger project already rejected. It could be a precursor to trying to complete the rejected 16-mile extension – an argument pressed by environmental activists.
The organization, which only needed the permit to replace a half-acre of filled-in wetlands with 35 acres of habitat enhancements, is appealing to the state water board. It said the Tesoro extension is needed on its own.
Lisa Telles, toll group spokeswoman, said the organization is focusing on the Tesoro extension. “Having an alternative to I-5 is the right thing to do,” she said, “but our focus in on Tesoro now.”
Asked about OCTA's plan to add carpool lanes through San Clemente, Telles said that always has been contemplated in addition to, not in lieu of, the 241 extension.
San Clemente's Jerry Collamer, leader of a “Save Trestles” fight against the 241 extension, said carpool lanes extending south from Pico are needed to avert an I-5 bottleneck, and soon, “not in 25 years waiting for San Diego County.”
Collamer said he thinks the toll group remains determined to “take the 241 to I-5 at Trestles.” But he said he thinks it's “a failed plan” for an expensive road that will never be financed, would be costly to drive and get little use.
Villa Park: The Orange County Transportation Authority is seeking public input to help plan for the county's transportation needs for the next 20 years. Villa Park residents are asked to participate in an online survey at octa.net/lrtp. The survey asks for transportation priorities through 2035.
New Santa Ana
Recognizing the importance of bus safety, OCTA recently launched a series of videos, contests and social media messaging designed to educate both new and experienced riders about this essential topic.
New Santa Ana
Freedom Communications, owner of the Orange County Register, is putting the newspaper’s longtime five-story, 175,000-square-foot and nearly 16 acres of land in Santa Ana off the I-5 Freeway on Grand Avenue and adjacent property on the market, according to the O.C. Register.
San Juan Capistrano Patch
As part of the construction on the Ortega Highway bridge over the I-5 Freeway in San Juan Capistrano, two off-ramps will be closed tonight along with the nearby cross streets. Here are the closures for the week.
6. Boardwalk Is Going Nowhere
On a recent sunny afternoon, nature was buzzing around a section of the newly revitalized area of Fairview Park. Birds and other wildlife were all around, sounding off in the trees, ponds and thick brush beyond the manicured walking trails of the park's Wetlands & Riparian Habitat, located in the 208-acre park's northwestern quadrant.