Community Editorial: Toll Road Agency Is Waterboarded

OC Toll Roads
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A desperate Transportation Corridor Agencies, abusing its financial and political dominance in Orange County, last week had to face reality — and the public — in San Diego.

Denied a waste discharge permit by the State Regional Water Control Board for their first 5.5-mile “Tesoro” segment of a 16-mile extension of the Foothill-South Route 241, they now must make some tough decisions.

Acting as their own lead agency, they tried to manipulate the project past a relatively weaker water board to pave the backcountry of South Orange County, opening up the wilderness for a new city of 35,000 just east of San Juan Capistrano. They tried to get around California environmental laws by passing off a portion of their 2006 analysis, approved with no public workshops or sufficient public notice.

The 2006 report assessed the ugly, 16-mile trip that proposed to bulldoze a protected wilderness area, five Native American sacred archaeological sites and portions of San Onofre State Beach Park. The Coastal Commission ruled in 2008 that the project violated the Coastal Act, a decision upheld by George W. Bush’s Commerce Department.

So how did TCA think they could get away with a cursory environmental analysis on such a controversial project, especially when state and national environmental organizations and governmental agencies had already publicly rebuffed them? Hubris? Naive ignorance?

14,000 Homes Planned Without a Proper Transportation Plan

The 5.5-mile extension does not rise to the level of a stand-alone project, because it extends the toll road almost, but not quite, to Ortega Highway.

Why stop there? Because TCA wanted to avoid Army Corps of Engineers oversight from crossing San Juan Creek at Ortega. So effectively, this is a road to nowhere.

Even the environmental documentation for Rancho Mission Viejo stated it could build its collection of villages without the Foothill-South extension.

Sadly, the Orange County Board of Supervisors approved the Ranch Plan lacking a comprehensive transportation plan, and this toll road — all 16-miles of it — will not ease the impending stop-and-go for all of South County. Some of us tried to tell decision-makers like San Juan Capistrano’s Mayor Pro Tem Sam Allevato that his support for the Ranch would despoil his city’s bucolic image, but he still touts the saving grace of an overpriced toll road to Yorba Linda and San Clemente. Morning commuters to Irvine? Get in line.

Community and environmental groups from Orange County and beyond met with the TCA to advise them how and where to build their extension that would protect area thoroughfares, neighborhoods, environmentally sensitive habitat areas, indigenous village remains dating back to the Holocene and world-class surfing sites.

Wild Heritage Planners (my group) recommended that instead of relying on existing, over-capacity east-west thoroughfares, a dedicated Rancho Mission Viejo access road  could connect with the San Joaquin Toll Road, Interstate 5 and employment centers to the north and west.

We called it the Beltway, connecting Routes 241 and 73 in a circular path that would become a genuine alternative to the congested freeways heading north. Access south to San Clemente and San Diego could be accomplished by improving and extending existing arterial streets. The I-5 will be optimized regardless and will happen sooner without the Foothill-South blasting nearby through one of our most popular and successful state parks. These options, of course, would have impacts too, but we might find some with significant transportation utility.

Did the TCA listen? No.

Where to now, TCA?

What will they do next? They can appeal to the water board. Better yet, they should do a Supplemental Environmental Impact Report. The entire project, wherever they intend to bulldoze, must be described and analyzed before they build the first segment.

And the TCA board must confront the looming questions. What about San Onofre and Trestles? The Acjachemen/Juaneno sacred site called Panhe? The Richard and Donna O’Neill Land Conservancy? After alternatives are put forth, then they should return to the water board and any other agencies for approval.

Furthermore, what about that failed business model? The insolvent experiment in toll roads that enriched developers while creating debt that just keeps growing and lengthening. What is it, 2053 for the Foothill-Eastern system to return to freeway status? Rating agencies have given TCA’s latest bond the lowest investment grade, except for $206 million in notes that received a rating of “junk.” Tolls are spiraling, among the highest in the nation, and ridership therefore will continue to lag.

I think we need to question whether we invest tax- and toll-payer funds into building even one more mile of this experiment gone awry. Can we see how this agency has become a Ponzi scheme, supported by chambers of commerce and prominent politicians from all over Orange County, supported by labor unions and developers hungry for financial gain at our expense?

Is it time to simply dissolve this rogue agency and find a way to buy out the toll booths, opening the roads for the public to use for once?

Clearly, TCA’s problems go well beyond surfers and environmentalists.

Jack Eidt is an urban planner, environmental advocate and member of the Voice of OC Community Editorial Board. In addition to serving as editor of the website WilderUtopia.com, he is director of Wild Heritage Planners.

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