LAKE ELSINORE —- Portions of Ortega Highway, the heavily used winding, mountain road linking Orange and Riverside, will be closed at night and partially closed during the day for the next three years while crews widen a stretch of the two-lane road.
Construction of the improvements to a 3.3-mile section of the highway from the San Juan Creek Bridge in Orange County that extends east to the Riverside County line, is expected to start Tuesday.
The purpose of the $40 million project, according to state Department of Transportation officials, is to make the highway safer. Along with widening the road’s lanes from 10 feet to 12 feet, crews will be adding 4-foot shoulders on each side, removing protruding rock walls that limit sight lines and adding turnout areas.
"Our purpose in building this project is to save lives," Pam Gorniak, an Orange County spokeswoman for Caltrans, said Friday.
Construction is expected to add to the already choked traffic conditions on the highway, which Caltrans officials say is used by more than 10,000 motorists a day. As part of their outreach efforts, department officials are planning to host an open house on the project at 5 p.m. Feb. 26 at the Cultural Center in Lake Elsinore, 183 N. Main St.
Gorniak said that Caltrans is encouraging commuters to use alternate routes into Orange County, such as Highway 91 to the north or Highways 76 and 78 to the south and then Interstate 5.
One Lake Elsinore City Council member voiced his skepticism this week when the council was presented with details on the project.
"It just seems like a lot of pain for very little gain," Councilman Thomas Buckley said.
From 8:30 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. every night until the project is completed, the portion of the highway being improved will be completely shut down. During the rest of the time, the highway will be reduced to one lane in half-mile stretches while crews continue to work.
Cars going in either direction will be let onto the one lane in 10-minute intervals. In the morning, according to Caltrans officials, priority will be given to westbound traffic. In the evening priority will be given to eastbound motorists.
Bob Cashman, who lives in Wildomar and takes the Ortega to his engineering job in Irvine, anticipates his commute is probably going to get longer. Already, he tries to get to the highway before 5 a.m., he said, and will have to get up even earlier if he is to take Highway 91.
He’s going to take a wait-and-see approach before altering his commute, he said.
"I think the first week or two, we’ll know how much of a hassle this is," Cashman said.
Louisa Dixon, another commuter who lives in Lake Elsinore, figures that her commute times are going to get longer as well. She’s sure there are going to be moments, she says, when she gets frustrated with the conditions on the road.
But in the end, she said, it shouldn’t be anything to get all worked up over.
"That’s just the way it is," Dixon said. "I’m going to have to get past it. Hopefully, three years down the road, it’s going to be a significant improvement."
Contact staff writer Jose Carvajal at (951) 676-4315, Ext. 2624, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ortega Highway Improvements
– What: Open house to discuss the project
– When: 5 to 7 p.m. Feb. 26
– Where: Lake Elsinore Cultural Center, 183 N. Main St.
– Information: Call Caltrans at (800) 724-0353