The City Council unanimously nixed state plans to put a tall digital traffic message sign on Interstate 5 across from Big Helyn's and south San Clemente neighborhoods, but it might build it anyway.
"I think its important for you not to create the impression that your decision tonight will prevent this sign from being built," City Manager George Scarborough said about the California Department of Tranportation project. "They may have superseding authority."
Workers already poured the concrete base for the changeable-message sign -- the kind that projects drive times, Amber Alerts, car wrecks and other traffic information -- that can be seen from a number of angles in residential neighborhoods, such as Avenida Dolores and others.
Caltrans has the authority to build the sign on the highway land but needed permission to bring electricity across El Camino Real to I-5 north. That's the city's jurisdiction.
Caltrans officials say the changeable-message signs are vital to making the roads safer and traffic more efficient. Gary Slater, the traffic operations chief for the agency's local branch, cited almost 40 national traffic studies that show the signs drastically reduce ancillary accidents when a wreck is announced ahead of time.
"Thirty-seven independent studies on dynamic signs showed these reduced accidents," Slater said. "They provide instantaneous response to traffic conditions. Nationwide, they provide the fastest information to the motorist."
Also, he said, the south San Clemente sign is part of Caltrans' plan to install the devices every three to five miles at "decision points" along the highway, where drivers could exit and take surface streets. The next one heading north is also in San Clemente, four miles up the freeway.
Council members all agreed to not only shoot down the electrical encroachment permit, but also to formally oppose the sign. They criticized Caltrans for failing to adequately communicate with the city and its residents, many of whom have fought to ban digital signs and billboards along the freeway.
Councilman Jim Dahl cited recent controversy centered on a soundwall built in the south end of town, which blocked large chunks of ocean views for many residents.
"I think the problem is the failure of communication between Caltrans and the city," he said.
Mayor Jim Evert agreed, saying the public's will to keep digital signs off the freeway was clear.
"You could say, 'get the public in here,'" he said. "I don't think that's necessary. You could get 50 people in here and they would all say the same thing as the three people who spoke [against the sign] tonight."
Councilman Tim Brown pointed out huge advances in mobile technology that he felt made the signs obsolete. He also said the proposed south San Clemente sign was redundant, given the one that is positioned four miles north.
Councilman Bob Baker, who ran his campaign in large part on the vow to reject digital billboards at the planned Marblehead Outlets, was also vehemently opposed to the sign.
"I typically side with the experts, but I'm going to go with local knowlege on this," he said.
Whether the state will or can force San Clemente to allow the electrical encroachment or bring in other electrical service that doesn't enter San Clemente jurisdiction, allowing it to build the sign anyway, remains to be seen.
Correction: The first name of the Caltrans district director was mistaken in the photo caption of an earlier version of this article. Patch regrets the error.