At a standstill: daily roadblocks cause hardships for San Juan Capistrano

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Written by Colin Breaux

Featured image: Frequent heavy traffic on the Ortega Highway causes some nearby San Juan Capistrano residents to take a back road when they want to travel around town. Photo: Colin Breaux

Although couple Rebecca and Shane Stafford live 50 feet off the Ortega Highway, they rarely use the pass to travel around San Juan Capistrano.

Instead – like some other locals – they use a back road to Calle Arroyo if they want to get to other parts of the city from their Mission Springs neighborhood. The daily traffic congestion in San Juan Capistrano is an appalling ordeal for the Staffords family, as it is for many San Juan residents.

“Just trying to cross town from 2:30 to 3:30 (afternoon), it’s just a dead end, trying to get past the highway. St. Margaret School[Episcopal School]graduates at the same time,” Rebecca Stafford said. Just move.”

Shane Stafford said trying to get their kids to school across town at Mission Basilica, from their home near the intersection of the Ortega Highway and Antonio Parkway, is an “absolute nightmare.”

“We moved in July 2013 from Laguna Niguel. At the time, it wasn’t too bad,” Shane Stafford said. “There was some construction going on, but it really wasn’t that bad. Since then, the traffic has gotten significantly worse.”

Local community complaints about traffic came into focus earlier this year when the city council debated and eventually agreed to allow an In-N-Out Burger location on Del Obispo Avenue, provided the company met conditional requirements related to the site’s design. The potential opening of a new In-N-Out at Marie Callender’s existing location sparked widespread disdain among San Juan residents over fears that the restaurant would add to traffic congestion. Staffords and other residents sent letters to council members opposing the restaurant before the vote.

The Del Obispo Street lane near the Ortega Expressway – a part some locals derisively nickname “Fast Food Alley” due to the number of fast food spots in the area – is another area where traffic tends to increase, especially on weekday afternoons. The school year, when children leave campus at the end of the school day.

When asked about traffic problems in San Juan before Dispatch CapistranoCity Manager Ben Segel said there are a few unique challenges for San Juan Capistrano when it comes to downtown traffic — including many of the area’s public and private schools.

“Out of my head, these would include San Juan Elementary School; Mission Basilica School; OCASA College Prep; Saint Margaret Episcopal School; Capistrano Valley Christian School; Capistrano Union High School; Kinoshita Elementary School; Marco Forster Middle School; Del Obispo Elementary School, Vermont; and JSerra High School,” Siegel said in an email. “For a community of this size, this is a very high percentage of schools, and great traffic comes with it during the school year. The volume of traffic is during the summer, winter and spring periods. so far lighter.”

Siegel also noted the downtown rail crossing on Avenida del Obispo, which cuts off the flow of traffic and coordinates traffic lights any time an Amtrak, Metrolink or freight train passes.

“The high traffic volume at the Ortega Highway/I-5 junction creates downstream congestion at the intersection of the Ortega Highway and Del Obispo Street,” Siegel said. “This results in a long line that runs along Del Obispo Avenue, from the Ortega Highway to Camino Capistrano.”

Although the Staffords also avoid the Ortega Highway and instead take Calle Arroyo to reach other parts of San Juan Capistrano, that back road – which has soccer and softball fields, along with horseback riding trails – presents challenges private to him.

“This little stretch, which was supposed to be a kind of quiet road, is now one of the main ways to get in and out of our area, because it’s impossible to get out of Ortega,” said Shane Stafford. “In the afternoons it’s kind of dangerous – not in a bad way on cars – for the kids, because there’s a lot of softball practice, soccer practice, and games on the weekends.”

Rick Franzi, who also lives along the Ortega Highway and opposes the In-N-Out restaurant on Del Obispo Avenue, is also angry at the local traffic congestion. He also tends to avoid the Ortega motorway due to the congestion that can build up in the morning and evening.

“The traffic is outrageous,” Franzi said. “I ended up retreating into the neighborhood and going to La Novia avenue.”

Franzi described the traffic buildup as a “dangerous situation,” particularly when parents take their children from school during the school year. Conditions tend to be so harsh that Franzi generally avoids going to DeNault’s ACE Hardware store on Del Obispo Avenue during high-traffic times, and instead goes to the Home Depot in Mission Viejo. Franzi said the road could be longer, but it’s a more predictable ride.

“It’s unfortunate, because I want to spend my money in the city,” Franzi said. “Adding Chick-fil-A only made it worse. Changing the supermarket to Target made it worse.”

Another factor adding to San Juan’s traffic problems is how the city has become a popular tourist and entertainment spot with the opening of new local fast-food restaurants and events are back after the pandemic restrictions were eased.

“San Juan Capistrano is a historic and destination community and is primarily unplanned (for example, unlike Irvine and some newer Southern District towns). Road capacity is limited both in Del Obispo and on Camino Capistrano between Del Obispo Avenue and Acjachema Street, Siegel said. For example, one lane in each direction.) Furthermore, the Camino Capistrano is the only north-south lane west of I-5. It is pointless to expand lanes or add dedicated turnover lanes without affecting business and other fixed uses on the the length of these arteries.

Siegel went on to say that recent data indicates that current traffic on Del Obispo is actually lower than it was in 2018.

“As part of the environmental analysis of In-N-Out, a traffic study was conducted that showed a total of 1,774 flights on Del Obispo between Camino Capistrano and Ortega Highway during the peak weekday afternoon/evening in September 2021 (that is, during the weekday afternoon/evening peak),” Siegel said. A similar study was conducted in April 2018 (ie, pre-COVID) as part of the environmental analysis Chick-fil-A, which shows peak afternoon/evening weekday traffic from 1,958 trips on this part of the same route. , or 184 more flights than in September 2021.”

“Of course, this is just one part of the road, and there are likely multiple explanations, but it is an important data point to consider when faced with anecdotal observations of increased traffic along this stretch,” Siegel continued.

Potential solutions or mitigation strategies suggested by Staffords do not include further construction or development after Antonio Parkway. Rebecca Stafford also recommended drivers to find an alternative travel route to the Ortega motorway – or at least slow down their travel speed.

“The biggest problem is all the buildings they’ve built there — Rancho Mission Viejo, Sendero, Essencia,” Shane Stafford said. “All of these neighborhoods[are]nice neighborhoods, but they all just made their way down Ortega.”

Shane Stafford, like other residents, prefers a sit-down restaurant on the Marie Callender location rather than another drive-in dining venue.

Steps taken by the city of San Juan Capistrano include – as Siegel mentioned – synchronizing traffic lights along Ave del Obispo from Alibaz Avenue and the slopes of I-5; the addition of a second lane to the left from Del Obispo to Camino Capistrano, which reduced the length of the queue for traffic; Free Weekend Trolley Service started in 2015; and facilitate more parking in the downtown areas and Los Rios Avenue.

The city will continue to “look for opportunities to reduce congestion downtown,” Siegel said.

Expansion of the Ortega Expressway—a Caltrans project that will increase the number of lanes on the Ortega Expressway from two to four lanes of Calle Entradero to 150 feet east of the city/county boundary—is on the horizon as well, but it will take some time from becoming a reality. The project will provide an additional 12-foot driveway in each direction, according to the project’s website.

“The project is currently in the design phase. Caltrans spokeswoman Elizabeth Manzo said she completed detailed ground surveys of the project site in May 2022. The team is working on updating the base map files. The phase is currently 5% complete.”

Expansion has been discussed for at least a decade.

In related news coming from a city council meeting on Tuesday, June 21, Mayor Derek Reeve raised the possibility of directing city employees to conduct a study that could lead to a ban on new car restaurants on Del Obispo Street, but the matter hasn’t moved forward due to a lack of support from other council members. .

“We had this discussion in the city council about the In-N-Out Burger. “We had a number of former councilors who were very hostile to the idea of ​​any new cars, especially in del Obispo,” Reeve said. “The more I think about it, it’s one of those issues where if you do a poll or some kind of vote with San Juan Capistrano residents and ask if they want to ban more car traffic, I think the sheer number of residents will say they don’t want more restaurants Fast food “.

Reeve also brought up the distinction between traditional driving lanes and parking spaces for customers who order food from a phone or computer app and then go to pick it up at a restaurant, the latter of which became popular during the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath. Closures and restrictions on indoor dining.

Councilman Troy Bourne said he opposes an outright ban on new restaurants on Ave del Obispo or elsewhere.

“I respect the previous board’s decision to make it more difficult, to where it was no longer right where it once was,” Bourne said, referring to the Discretionary and Conditional Use Permits that led to In-N-Out’s approval. “I can appreciate why a certain area of ​​the city is asking for it, but the particular (Reef) example we have here today is that two years ago the entire industry changed and transformed in ways that the council would not have expected 10 years ago, who would not have expected that no one would be able to go to the restaurant “.

“We don’t know what will happen five years from now or 10 years from now, so I feel I should trust future city councils as much as they trust us,” Bourne continued. “If someone comes along and wants to turn an auto parts store into a car shop – it looks like it’s going to be a group hearing, and they’ll have to make a convincing case for why that – but we can’t look 10 years into the future to understand whether it’s a good case or not.”

Colin Brooks

Collin Breaux covers San Juan Capistrano and other South Orange County news as the city editor of the Capistrano Dispatch. Prior to moving to California, he covered Hurricane Michael, politics and education in Panama City, Florida. He can be reached via email at

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