The city's Transportation Commission discussed Wednesday the railroad tracks at Del Obispo, which are running a very close second to the Ortega Highway-I-5 interchange in Patch's in town.
While there may be some slight tweaks here and there, the bottom line is that there's no major relief on the horizon, and because of the concern for public safety, such relief may never arrive.
The Orange County Transportation Authority and its consultants gave the results of a recent study it conducted of the railroad tracks crossing at Del Obispo Street.
Grumblings about traffic snarls up and down Del Obispo have made it to OCTA. Project Manager Mary Toutounchi said frustration is caused in part by the addition of a safety device called a queue cutter.
Basically, it’s a sensor in the street that can tell if traffic already past the tracks will start backing up onto the tracks, endangering the drivers, Toutounchi said.
When cars are getting too close to the tracks in one of the lanes, a new signal installed with the sensor system in October turns red, even if there’s no train, other lanes are clear and the signal up ahead (either at Camino Capistrano or Paseo Adelante) is green.
“You get the green signal at the Camino Cap, but you get the red signal at the railroad tracks, and you say to yourself, ‘Why am I not moving,” said Fred Minagar, a traffic engineer OCTA hired to get some “fresh eyes” on the problem, as Toutounhchi put it.
In the end, however, it’s about public safety, said Minagar, who is also chairman of the Laguna Niguel Planning Commission who has personally traveled Del Obispo for years and said he sympathizes with local commuters' pain.
Minagar set up video cameras and watched the railroad crossing 24/7 for two weeks. In a 24-hour period, he found 19 hours fairly congestion-free, with minimal need for the queue cutter to throw the red light.
That means five hours of heavier traffic. Minagar noticed that when the queue cutter is triggered for eastbound traffic, 55 percent of the time, it’s for traffic lining up to make a left turn onto Camino Capistrano. Another 25 percent is caused by the right lane backing up to turn south on Camino Capistrano.
Seven percent of the time, eastbound traffic turning left into the Adobe Shopping Center triggers the red light. Minager suggested the city could consider removing that turn as an option.
For westbound traffic, 70 percent of the time the queue cutter stops traffic, it’s the No. 1 lane (or inside lane going straight) that causes the back-up, Minagar found.
For now, OCTA’s Toutounchi recommends the city take no action. The authority will initiate yet another study, this one focusing on the so-called “ghost-train” effect – when the railroad crossing arms go down, but no train passes – in June.
At the same time, the city will be wrapping up construction to widen the Del Obispo bridge over Trabuco Creek. City and OCTA officials will then have all the data they need to figure out what to do next, she said.
If the City Council wants to remove the queue cutters, it will have to petition the California Public Utilities Commission, which required them in the first place, Toutounchi said. Such a process could take 18 months and the commission isn't likely to approve it.
Commuter convenience doesn't usually trump public safety, she said.
One solution the city could enact itself is to trigger Camino Capistrano red when the queue-cutter light goes red, said Christopher Poli, another engineer consultant to OCTA. At least that way, drivers waiting behind the railroad tracks won't feel like they could be moving.
Here's how the wait times have changed at key intersections along Del Obispo Street in the last year, according to the OCTA. The levels of service are indicated on a A-F scale, much like a school report card.AM Rush Hour (7-8 a.m.) PM Rush Hour (5-6 p.m.) Intersection 2011 2012
(seconds)Ortega Hwy B B
+0.4Plaza Drive A A
Camino CapC C
+3.0Paseo Adelanto B A
+2.9Alipaz Street C C