Residents in Riverside County who use the state-funded Ortega Highway to commute to Orange County never know what to expect before they head up the 26-mile two-lane winding canyon road. Commuters can find themselves stuck in traffic delays or closures, which local leaders say can be averted if Caltrans posted proper notification.
Riverside County Supervisor Kevin Jeffries and Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore) wrote a letter to Caltrans criticizing the state agency for “continuing to ignore Riverside County’s interest in issues regarding Ortega Highway.”
Jeffries, who represents the first District, sent the letter to Caltrans District 12 Director Ryan Chamberlain, expressing his disappointment that three informational meetings were being held on the Orange County end of Ortega Highway but none are scheduled in Riverside County.
Jeffries and Melendez, who represent Lake Elsinore, Wildomar, Lakeland Village and surrounding communities, have asked Caltrans officials to schedule an informational meeting in Lake Elsinore to discuss the Ortega Highway Interchange project and its impact on Riverside County drivers.
“Thousands of Riverside County residents drive over the Ortega Highway into Orange County every day, and they have a right to be informed about the challenges they may face in their daily commutes,” said Melendez.
According to Jeffries this is an ongoing issue he thought was resolved.
“This is not the first time that Caltrans District 12 has ignored Riverside County’s interests in Ortega Highway, as we had a similar problem with the first year of the Orangeman Triathlon that closed Ortega Highway without adequately consulting with Riverside agencies and communities,” Jeffries said.
The Orangeman Triathlon races along a 20-mile stretch of the Ortega — starting in Orange County and ending at El Cariso Village in Riverside County. It closes the highway for five hours, from 7 a.m. until shortly after noon. Promoters from Go Forward Racing of Dana Point received permission from the state department of transportation in both counties to close the public road for the cycling portion of the Orangeman Half-Distance Triathlon, but commuters and local residents in the Inland Empire complained in 2011 they were not given notification of the road closures.
There was also controversy over using the Ortega Highway as a major public connector road between two counties for a recreational private event.
Jeffries Chief of Staff Jeff Greene said Caltrans did improve their communication with Riverside County residents for the second race: “The 2012 race was managed much better as a result of our complaints, but how do you totally forget that lesson on the next project?”
“How do you continue to deal only with the location of a project or closure, while ignoring that the majority of the users come from a different area,” said Greene.
Next month Caltrans will begin construction on an $86 million Ortega Highway interchange project at the I-5. Caltrans has already held one community forum in Orange County, and on Saturday Jan. 19, the agency will hold two more in San Juan Capistrano: from 7-8:30 a.m. at Historic Town Center Park or 9-10:30 a.m. at Cook Park.
Caltrans District 12 Chief of Public Information Gloria Roberts said, “We have been conducting outreaches since the fall of 2012 with elected officials, local business and emergency responders. We started last week reaching out to the local residents in Orange County where we had 300 attendees.”
Lake Elsinore Mayor Bob Magee said the residents on the other side of the mountain in the Inland Empire should also be considered local.
“Caltrans has ignored my community again just like with the bike race. We should not be treated like second class citizens,” said Magee.
Magee said his city worked hard to have great communication with District 12 and it was successful for 10 years. Then, due to a change in staff at Caltrans, the communication has broken down.
“There are more residents according to the traffic count that commute from the IE to the OC than the other way around,” said Magee.
Roberts said officials from Caltrans District 12 are now ready to work with District 8 and its residents in Temecula, Murrieta, Lake Elsinore, Wildomar and others.
Magee said Caltrans should work with residents on both sides of the hill simultaneously.
The interchange is expected to begin on Feb 15. The overhaul will increase the size, height and capacity of the Ortega Bridge over the freeway.
The two-year construction project will feature “intermittent” night closures of the north and southbound on- and off-ramps, as well as alternating, several-week, full closures of the ramps and even sections of Ortega Highway west of the freeway.
The Caltrans website for the Ortega project is www.ortega.dot.ca.gov.
Michelle Mears-Gerst is a local writer and regular contributor to SWRNN.