Concerns about an extension of the 241 toll road are brewing again after Orange County supervisors backed plans to expand roads to accommodate 14,000 new homes being built near Ladera Ranch by developer Rancho Mission Viejo.
It comes as county supervisors – at the urging of Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who represents South County – are now supporting three projects meant to address traffic issues from the new developments that are already partially built south and east of Ladera Ranch.
On Tuesday, the supervisors approved a “cooperative agreement” to pursue an extension of Los Patrones Parkway south from Cow Camp Road to Avenida La Pata, widening Ortega Highway from two lanes to four, and upgrading carpool lanes on the 5 freeway between Avenida Pico and the San Diego County line.
While Bartlett described the Los Patrones plan as being for a “non-tolled” road, the newly-approved agreement she backed raises the possibility of the toll roads agency TCA planning to “construct a southerly extension of the SR-241” toll road.
The agreement says Bartlett’s office and other officials would engage in “good faith” discussions about the toll road extension if TCA goes in that direction.
South County environmental advocate and urban planner Jack Eidt says the home developer, Rancho Mission Viejo, should be paying for the infrastructure to accommodate its development – something he says county supervisors should have secured years ago.
“[Rancho Mission Viejo] should have been charged fees to fund these improvements, but they all argued the improvements wouldn’t be needed. And their traffic consultants played the same game – making up a plan that left major gaps in traffic improvements needed,” Eidt said.
The new agreement is also prompting questions about whether officials are setting the stage for a toll road extension of State Route 241 – and why the public is covering the roads’ costs, as opposed to the developers.
Bartlett, who has been leading the county effort to approve the agreement, didn’t return phone messages asking for her response to such concerns, other than to say the developer pays an unspecified amount of fees to the toll road agency to be used in the area.
She didn’t return a follow-up message asking whether any of that money will go to the three proposed projects.
Eidt says the new agreement’s language about extending the 241 toll road could “leave a back door open” to it.
He also said county supervisors “looked at toll roads as a solution to all our traffic problems with religious zeal” when the housing development was approved in 2004.
After the toll road plan later fell apart amid public opposition, “they had no plan to deal with the real traffic generated from this massive development. And no private funding – this is 100% for one landowner – so it is hardly a public need,” he continued.
“But with our politicians vacating their responsibilities, it is left to the next generation to deal with the problems.”
Rancho Mission Viejo’s spokesman, John Christensen of Cornerstone Communications, didn’t return a phone message for comment.
At Tuesday’s supervisors meeting, Bartlett said the three proposed projects are meant to address traffic issues from the 14,000 new homes – which were approved by supervisors in 2004 as part of the “Ranch Plan” and already are largely built.
“Those are the only three projects that provide enough traffic relief. Looking at the growth of Rancho Mission Viejo with 14,000 homes, we need to have traffic relief on our streets, our arterials and the one highway we have through south county,” Bartlett said during discussion of the agreement at Tuesday’s supervisors meeting.
She noted the projects will give the developer and local officials “certainty” about the necessary road improvements – now up for approval after many of the homes were already built.
Bartlett says there’s not really any other option but to now build these roads.
“What other potential options are there? We’ve got built-out neighborhoods. We don’t have significant options,” Bartlett said at Tuesday’s meeting.
Her proposed agreement for the three projects was approved on a 4-0 vote Tuesday, with Supervisor Doug Chaffee abstaining.
Chaffee opted to not vote for it after expressing concerns it ties the hands of future Boards of Supervisors from being able to change course on the projects.
Supervisor Don Wagner also mentioned concerns from several south county cities, whose elected leaders were texting him during Tuesday’s meeting with concerns.
Wagner asked Bartlett what she has to say to concerns that her proposal will direct future traffic in South County to Mission Viejo and San Juan Capistrano.
He said the two cities “apparently don’t support this agreement, and giving no burden of that potential traffic to San Clemente, which has already kind of thrown up its hands and said ‘We don’t want to be part of the South County transportation solution, and we’re going to get off the [toll roads] board.’ ”
“What does one make of those concerns?” he asked.
Bartlett responded that studies have shown the three proposed projects would do the most to address traffic issues from the new 14,000-home development.
“Those three projects – independently and combined – have shown they have the most significant traffic relief,” Bartlett said, noting the toll roads agency unanimously supports that plan.
“We’ve got to have traffic relief. We have more growth down there. So these three projects are the ones we need to focus on.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.