Delays at Railroad Tracks to Continue

The Orange County Transportation Authority studied traffic on Del Obispo Street. Yep, we've got back-up. But the recommendation for now is to wait.

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  

 Delay Change


2011 2012

 Delay Change 


Ortega Hwy  B  B


 B  B


Plaza Drive  A  A


 B  B


Camino Cap

 C  C


 D  D


Paseo Adelanto  B  A


 B  B


Alipaz Street  C  C


 C  C


Matt Gaffney April 12, 2012 at 05:05 PM
Well it looks like whatever, if any, solutions are to occur it's not going to be until the end of June when the Del Obispo bridge widening is completed. I'll stay on top of this one. I travel that route everyday & it seems that the ghost trains are the biggest problems.
Kim April 12, 2012 at 05:11 PM
Mary Tontounchi states "Commuter convenience doesn't usually trump public safety". Obviously she, the OCTA, and our City Council just don't get it. No emergency vehicles can pass thru the traffic back-up before or after a train passes at that intersection with the new "center island" design....is that not about public safety? Oh, and yes, let's spend more tax payer dollars to have a study done on the "ghost" train effect. Here is the study in two minutes...observe what is happening when a south bound train comes in to the SJC station....RR crossings go down, traffic backs up, no train passes...now we have two minutes of backed up traffic for no reason...then moments later, the real train passes blocking the intersection for another 2 minutes......multiple that by how many south bound trains go thru SJC daily, especially at peak traffic hours, and that equals traffic chaos.......there is an easy fix...just do it!
Pat Bauer April 12, 2012 at 05:37 PM
When I moved to San Juan last June I was commenting to everyone what a great job the city did to keep traffic flowing. I was very impressed. All of a sudden it is a mess! At times Del Obispo backs up in both directions half way back to either Ortega or Camino Capistrano. That is in addition to the problems at the tracks which in the instance of Camino Capistrano is of course related to the signal at the tracks. What the hell happened??
Penny Arévalo (Editor) April 12, 2012 at 05:56 PM
For the record, the quote attributed to Tontounchi in Kim's post is my paraphrase of what she said last night. :-) The two other traffic engineers/consultants to the OCTA basically said the same thing.
Kim April 12, 2012 at 06:08 PM
Pat, you should ask your City Council members just that question, both Laura Freese and the ex-mayor now "ousted" Mark Nielsen, voted for the red light signals at the RR crossing, which has contributed to the accelerated traffic issues in town that you have noticed. Not to mention the COST, major confusion and chaos those signals have created.
Clint Worthington April 12, 2012 at 07:54 PM
Kim, you are exactly right. This is an extreme safety hazard. When the crossing gates go down for the Ghost Train for almost two minutes, it then takes another minute for traffic to clear. By that time the crossing gates are coming down for the southbound train leaving the station. That is almost a total of five minutes that the crossing gates are down. No emergency vehicles may get through. This was not a problem until the median was widened as previously emergency vehicles could pass on the right. Now they cannot get through at all. How is this a safety improvement? Emergency vehicles are unable to get through the crossing for five minutes. Where is the public safety here. The Del Obispo crossing does not have a history of crossing accidents. In fact, it does not have a history crossing accidents at all. Why is the public safety for emergency vehicles getting through being comprimised? As taxpayers, we have paid over 9.2 million dollars for this "improvement". Where is the improvement? The number one priority was to eliminate the Ghost Train effect. This "improvement" has only made it worse.
Clint Worthington April 12, 2012 at 07:55 PM
Thank Council Members Allevato and Freese, along with former Council Member Nielsen who voted for this "improvement". If you live on the West side of the tracks, God help us should we ever need emergency vehicles.
Clint Worthington April 12, 2012 at 07:58 PM
I agree with you Matt. The Ghost Train is the biggest problem. In addition, installing an Opticom on the traffic signal for the que cutter would help to avert the catastrophe of emergency vehicles unable to get to the other side of the crossing.
Kim April 12, 2012 at 08:26 PM
Mr. Worthington..9.2 million for that dismal mess, and they call it an improvement? Baffling to say the least. Wonder what yet another study on this issue as proposed above will cost us all? Makes you wonder why the average "voter" in SJC is unaware of the bad and expensive decisions certain council members have voted for using our tax payer dollars. Of course, the voters took care of Mark Nielsen's inept ways during the last election. Voters, start to read and understand the facts before the next election as it is right around the corner..... No repeats, we simply can not afford it!
pjd April 12, 2012 at 08:36 PM
Wait some more? That's all we do is wait - at the crossing and for the taxpayer supported personnel to do their jobs. We have all studied the RR crossing problems and presented them quite well amd for free in the Patch and to SJC City Hall. Just listen and fix it. We also need those personnel to insist the state build a Southbound freeway offramp at Stonehill for vehicles going to or near to DP. That would alleviate del Obispo traffic considerably. Follow the traffic for that study - also free. Also, I was assured by SJC personnel that the poles and wires near the bridge on Alipaz would be eliminated at the same time the bridge was rebuilt. It does not look like SJC City Hall kept its word...again.
Kim April 13, 2012 at 12:12 AM
@Matt, Am I mistaken...aren't you on the Transportation board? Can you help with this mess?
Clint Worthington April 13, 2012 at 02:18 AM
Kim, by the way, after the 9.2 million dollars was paid by the taxpayers, there still is no Quiet Zone. There is no target in sight as to when the Quiet Zone will be implemented. Council Members Allevato, Freese and former Council Member Nielsen duped the taxpayers....again.
Charles Royce April 14, 2012 at 05:33 AM
There was no problem until the center divider and planter was installed taking out an entire lane causing a huge speed bump in the right lane. AND now there is no place for any bicycle riders to go! It's also much harder to get in and out of the ElAdobe Plaza now. I have personally spent 12 minutes getting from the Fire Station to the bridge. What about the water usage to water the plants in the center divider.
Kim April 14, 2012 at 06:42 PM
@ Charles..I think those plants are suppose to be drought resistant...requiring much less water, but you are so right, the center island idea is just plain crazy/expensive.... To Clint Worthington, how many times are the citizens of SJC going to be compromised, or, so apply put by you, "duped", by a City Council that spends our money like it grows on trees, the trees are dying...Don't any of them have any fiscal sense? Time to clean house this fall!
Robert Bruce April 18, 2013 at 03:21 PM
I think the solution is to turn off the signals for "maintenance" to be performed by the Del Obispo bridge contractor. The job would never be completed and the lights effectively be a non issue.


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