Community Editorial: Orange County Toll Road to Nowhere

San Onofre Toll Road
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Someone should tell Orange county decision makers: The six decade-long Driving Boom, based on cheap gas and a growing workforce population, has ended. With dwindling transportation funding and demographics favoring multimodal, low-carbon mobility, cities and counties across the U.S. seek alternatives to enabling suburban sprawl through road building into the wilderness.

The state of California has even mandated such requirements through the Global Warming Solutions Act (Assembly Bill 32) and Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act (Senate Bill 375). Yet the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) has not gotten the memo, as they move forward on the first five-mile segment of a planned 16-mile extension of the six-lane Foothill South state Route 241.

Their intention? To bulldoze through the last remaining wild coastal sage and scrub oak woodlands on the border of San Diego County. This would include San Onofre State Park and the Richard and Donna O’Neill Conservancy.

The Foothill South, approved by TCA in 2006 but challenged on the basis of a faulty environmental review in two separate lawsuits, was ultimately declared inconsistent with the Coastal Zone Management Act by the California Coastal Commission in 2008. The U.S. secretary of commerce later upheld the decision. However, the TCA again failed to listen to the overwhelming theme: We need more sustainable and forward-thinking transportation options.

Many were suggested: Optimize existing freeway corridors using existing right-of-way; extend and improve key arterials to provide alternative access for local neighborhoods; double-track the Los Angeles-to-San Diego rail lines to augment service on Amtrak and Metrolink, which could be done in conjunction with freeway work.

My group, Wild Heritage Planners, advanced the notion that the Foothill-Eastern Toll Road should be connected with the San Joaquin Hills Toll Road nearby, which heads toward employment centers and the coastal areas of central Orange County.

Sadly, the TCA builds toll roads, not most of the aforementioned options.

The point is, transportation optimization does not happen in a vacuum and always has consequences. The TCA has not dealt with the big picture, only a 5.5-mile “Tesoro Extension” that they say would pose no harm to the environment thanks to four passages that would allow animals to cross under the highway, as well as costly water runoff and treatment systems that would prevent hazardous chemicals from spilling from the road into local groundwater. They also assert the project will create more than 2,000 jobs in Orange County and 407 jobs statewide.

Dan Silver, executive director of the Endangered Habitats League, rebuts these notions, saying: “This illegal segment is a desperate attempt to perpetuate a project which is so contrary to the public interest. TCA’s existing toll roads are a financial disaster, and we shouldn’t throw good money after bad.”

OC Toll Road Agency: Environmental Rogue

The TCA has not yet resolved coastal zone incompatibilities, which includes saving Trestles, the iconic surf beach on the southern edge of San Clemente. Where will the road go after the first segment? What will happen to the San Juan Capistrano and Ladera Ranch neighborhoods, where traffic will be dead-ending? What about the potential destruction of five archaeological sites, including some dating to the early Holocene?

Now the TCA seeks an approval from the State Regional Water Resources Control Board, yet have not met the standards as required by the Southern Orange County Hydromodification Management Plan (HMP). TCA, despite their assertions, has also not adhered to newly devised stormwater regulations, overlooking impacts to wetlands, the San Juan Creek and the surrounding watershed that could subsequently impact coastal resources.

The environmental coalition led by Surfrider, Natural Resources Defense Council, Endangered Habitats League and the Sierra Club, among others, have again filed suit against the project’s deficient environmental review, calling for a supplemental environmental impact report, which would assess the many impacts and alternatives of the multiple segments of the 16-mile extension. Attorney General Kamala Harris also filed suit late last month against the proposed extension.

The attorney general’s office described the project as “a classic example of ‘piecemealing’ ” and said it violates one of the most fundamental principles of California’s environmental law: “A lead agency must engage in careful analysis, fully open to the public, of an entire project’s environmental impacts from start to finish.”

Save Trestles and San Onofre?

San Onofre State Beach Park is home to 11 threatened or endangered species and attracts 2.7 million visitors a year. With the recent announcement of the closing and decommissioning of the San Onofre nuclear power plant, the future of the park looks bright. It’s world-famous surf break, Trestles, generates an annual economic value of $24 million to nearby San Clemente. Numerous independent studies have challenged both the traffic alleviation effects and the financial viability of the proposed toll road.

“Building a toll road through a state park was a bad idea when it was rejected by the Bush Administration in 2008 and is a bad idea now,” said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation. “TCA is selling the public on a road that won’t alleviate traffic and will literally cut in half one of the most popular state parks in California.”

The Regional Water Quality Control Board meeting will take place on Wednesday at the Water Quality Control Board meeting room, 9174 Sky Park Court, San Diego.

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