Ortega Highway has for years been one of California's deadliest roads -- 30 miles of twisting narrow asphalt, plunging cliffs, say-a-prayer blind spots and heavy commuter traffic meandering through the mountains of south Orange County.
Now, transportation officials are considering a multibillion-dollar plan to widen the antiquated two-lane road to relieve congestion on the Riverside Freeway -- the primary transportation corridor connecting Orange County and the fast-growing Inland Empire.
But Ortega Highway is going to be a tough road to tame.
Its slim right-of-way squeezes through the tight gorges and steep slopes of the Santa Ana Mountains, presenting builders with significant engineering hurdles.
The highway crosses some of the most sensitive wildlife habitat in Southern California, including the San Juan Creek watershed, the Cleveland National Forest and Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park. The San Mateo Canyon Wilderness is nearby.
Municipal officials in south Orange County are mindful of the Riverside Freeway's growing congestion. But they aren't enthusiastic about proposals that could nearly quadruple traffic from the Inland Empire to their cities and Interstate 5 -- a freeway, planners say, that is overtaxed and needs its own expensive overhaul.
"We just can't be a receptacle for more motorists from Riverside [County]," said Sam Allevato, a San Juan Capistrano councilman. "The project would destroy the scenic character of the Ortega. And it's so narrow in spots there's barely room for two lanes, let alone four."
The proposal to super-size Ortega Highway is one of several options pending before a committee of policymakers and transportation officials from the two counties interested in developing alternatives to the Riverside Freeway -- the stretch of California 91 from the 60 Freeway in Riverside to the I-5.
Traffic on the Riverside Freeway is expected to almost double in the next 25 years, from 260,000 vehicles a day to about 450,000, most of them Inland Empire residents commuting to jobs in Orange and Los Angeles counties.
Other options include expanding public transit, widening the Riverside Freeway to as many as 17 lanes, building a new highway paralleling the 91 and digging a 12-mile tunnel under Cleveland National Forest from Cajalco Road in Riverside County to California 133 in Irvine. The committee is to decide on the proposals in December.
Improvements to the Ortega would include widening the highway to four lanes from Lake Elsinore to several miles east of San Juan Capistrano at a proposed Foothill South tollway, a turnpike from Oso Parkway east of Mission Viejo to the I-5 near San Clemente. The 10-foot-wide lanes would be increased to the standard 12 feet. Shoulders would be added to help prevent cars from tumbling down the mountainside -- a not-uncommon mishap along the Ortega.
"There're so many accidents, you can get over the top of the mountains and have to turn right around and go all the way back," said Joe Narciso, 44, a state building inspector from Wildomar who commutes over the Ortega. "The improvements are needed bad."
Although the alignment hasn't been determined, planners say two new lanes might be built in tunnels on the north side of San Juan Creek. To avoid the Ortega's spiraling descent into Lake Elsinore, planners are considering a tunnel bypass that would connect to Interstate 15.
The cost to widen the Ortega would be about $3 billion, a figure that doesn't include extensive environmental protections that would be required for the wilderness areas, national forest and the San Juan Creek watershed. Those areas are home to centuries-old stands of oak, mountain lions and 20 threatened species of plants and animals, such as the arroyo toad and southern steelhead trout.
Planners say the expanded road would accommodate at least 35,000 vehicles a day -- nearly four times its capacity now.
Over the last decade, the Ortega has emerged as a secondary commuter link to Orange County from southern Riverside County, a purpose it was never designed for when the highway was built in 1929 along an old Indian trail.
In such tight quarters, cars and trucks sometimes sideswipe each other, ripping off side-view mirrors, door handles and trim. Motorists who pass illegally often force other drivers to hug the guardrails or hillsides to avoid getting hit.
At rush hour "it's a steady line of cars," said Steve Bobbett, 53, of Lake Elsinore. "The road is narrow and winding and a lot of people just don't know how to drive it."
On weekends, the highway takes on another personality. Car clubs, sightseers, campers and trucks hauling boats compete for road space with high-performance motorcycles that weave in and out of traffic.
Compared to similar state routes, the risk of death or serious injury on the Ortega is among the highest for motorists.