Thursday, June 8, 2017
[Orange County] Grand Jury issues harsh report against San Juan Capistrano for Ortega Highway delays
Taking aim at a long history of delays and legal disputes in efforts to complete the widening of Ortega Highway in San Juan Capistrano, the Orange County Grand Jury on Monday, June 5 issued a report that largely lays the blame on the city of San Juan Capistrano and its City Council.
The county watchdog’s report, “Ortega Highway: Unnecessary Delays Have Cost Us Millions,” delivered a blistering appraisal of the efforts and obstacles to widen a one-mile portion of California State Road 74, a popular 29-mile stretch of road used by 43,500 vehicles daily and linking south Orange and Riverside counties.
The Grand Jury said decisions by San Juan Capistrano officials to back out as lead agency of the project and “minimal action” from 2011 to 2015 have “the potential to cost Orange County taxpayers millions of dollars and jeopardize the safety of those who routinely travel Ortega Highway.”
“I think it’s a damning report,” said Sergio Farias, a San Juan Capistrano councilman who was elected after the actions the Grand Jury faulted. “It’s embarrassing to the city. There’s a view that we’re not willing to work with the rest of the county.”
In a written statement, Mayor Kerry Ferguson said the report was unnecessary and that the city, Caltrans and the Orange County Transportation Authority have already put a plan in motion to move forward independent of the investigation.
“Thus, it was a waste of taxpayer dollars and a lot of peoples’ time,” Ferguson wrote.
According to the Grand Jury report, in 2011, after years of wrestling over issues in widening the one-mile stretch from two to four lanes from the county line into the city, an agreement was reached among the Department of Transportation, the city and the Hunt Club Community Association, which had filed suit against the project. The city became the lead agency.
However, in 2016, the City Council by a 3-1 decision reversed a December 2015 agreement to finalize the design effort. Council members said at the time they wanted a regional mobility study done to look at alternate ways to move traffic from the growing Rancho Mission Viejo community to the I-5 Freeway or 73 Toll Road.
According to the Grand Jury, failing to act on the 2011 agreement to design, engineer and build a widened roadway will cost taxpayers an extra $22 million to $27 million, which is “directly attributable to the over five-year delay of the project by the city.”
Ferguson said that blame for the delay is misplaced.
“The investigation found nothing that was not within the power of Caltrans, who has jurisdiction over the Highway 74 right-of-way, and thus any delays can be attributed to their reluctance to move ahead.”
The Board of Supervisors has since made Orange County Public Works the lead agency.
Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said the report reaffirms the need to finish the widening project, specifically to improve safety and traffic flow.
In its report, the Grand Jury noted that for more than 50 years the county has called for the widening of Ortega Highway. Since 2010, traffic on the road has grown from 27,500 vehicles per day to 43,500, and peak hourly traffic has grown from 2,500 to 4,500.
The goal of the project is to enhance safety, decrease traffic congestion, reduce noise levels by building sound walls and make other improvements in crossing, sidewalks and drainage to alleviate flooding.
“It’s a key link between Orange County and Riverside County, particularly for people who live in the southern part of Orange County,” said Joel Zlotnik, spokesman with the Orange County Transportation Authority. “We certainly have seen traffic increase over the years on Ortega and throughout south Orange County.”
Caltrans is expected to begin environmental work on the project this fall.
According to the report, the City Council’s actions cost San Juan Capistrano residents $185,170 in money already spent on the project that the Transportation Authority says is ineligible for reimbursement, as well as the chance to have an influence on design aspects that “could be tailored to the particular aesthetics and culture of San Juan Capistrano.”
Farias said he thought the city made a misstep in surrendering its position as lead agency.
“That’s a big deal to me,” he said, noting the city ceded better control over the design aesthetics of the project, including trees that line the road and give it its rural appeal.
Critics of the widening say the city is being unfairly burdened by the development of Rancho Mission Viejo, which is building 14,000 new homes.
“It’s sad when you see traffic pushed through at higher volumes and speeds,” Ferguson said.
San Juan Capistrano has 90 days to formally respond to the report. The Grand Jury recommends that city staff report to the City Council and community on the fiscal consequences the city incurred by withdrawing from the project.
City Manager Brad Siegel said the city would comply with the request.
June 5, 2017
The Orange County Register
By Greg Mellen