City Council member Bobby Shriver and Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney for the Santa Monica branch of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) both celebrated the federal government’s final rejection of the controversial $1.3 billion Foothill South Toll Road, a project opposed by environmentalists and favored by Orange County transportation planners in equally passionate degrees.
The 16-mile turnpike, intended to connect southern Orange County with northern San Diego County, was dealt a major blow on the morning of Friday, December 19, when the U.S. Commerce Department upheld the California Coastal Commission’s rejection of the six-lane road because it violated California’s coastal management program guidelines.
Traffic in that Southern California corridor is, by all accounts, increasingly problematic. Although the Foothill South project was the most cost-effective of many proposed solutions, environmentalists objected to the six-lane highway cutting though San Onofre State Park, a beachfront locale that is extremely popular with locals, particularly surfing enthusiasts. Advocates of the plan, including its sponsor, the Transportation Corridor Agency (TCA), continue to insist that the project, which would have run from Rancho Santa Margarita to Basilone Road at Camp Pendleton, is the best solution for providing much-needed gridlock relief in the area.
“In the face of overwhelming evidence, this decision is an abandonment by the federal government of its responsibility to the environment and to national security,” said Tustin CA Councilman Jerry Amante, who chairs the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency board. “This decision is inexplicably anti-commerce and inexplicably anti-neighborhood.”
Federal officials could only override the state’s decision if, in their estimation, the project had no alternatives or was necessary to national security, but neither of those criteria were met. “They’ve thrown in the regulatory towel, so they can only go to the legal towel,” joked Shriver, who has spearheaded the Save San Onofre Coalition since its inception. Unless they indeed mount a legal challenge, the TCA will be forced to re-think, re-assess and in all likelihood, re-do plans to deal with the congestion on Interstate 5.
In a phone call with the Mirror, Mr. Shriver, who along with Mr. Reynolds helped formulate the strategy to oppose the Foothill project, noted that famed Trestles surfing spot (considered world-class by surfing cognoscenti), was threatened by the road and so galvanized much community support and environmental activism. Mr. Shriver, the first speaker for the coalition, also testified and lobbied in Washington to kill the project. In September, a hearing on Foothill South in Del Mar was attended by over 3,000 people and the appeal process generated an estimated 35,000 comments, more than any case in recent memory, according to a spokesman from the Commerce Department.
“Once you allow the veil of state park protection to be breached, it becomes impossible to defend other state parks that will be put on the chopping block for some so-called essential public purpose,” said Mr. Reynolds earlier this year.
In an interview with the Mirror, Mr. Reynolds was forthright in his assessment of the TCA’s proposal. “This is an agency that is stuck on stupid. It’s a terrible project…one of the most destructive in recent memory…it will not solve the traffic problem and almost certainly be a financial failure, like most of their other toll roads,” he said. “The most recent toll road has been on the verge of bankruptcy since it opened in San Joaquin Hills, in fact they’ve applied for a $1.1 billion bailout, not to build a new road, but to restructure their existing debt…and this from an agency that claims it builds roads with no public money. Even the Bush administration, which has been no friend to the environment, wants no part of this [Foothill] project.”
With regard to the San Joaquin Hills toll road, Lisa Telles, Spokeswoman for the TCA, told the Mirror that, “the $1.1 billion is not a bailout, it’s a loan program in place for a number of years at a low interest rate. We are looking to consolidate and streamline our operations. We do not know at this time whether or not the loan has been approved, but it’s not a ‘bailout.’”
When asked about environmental impact of the project, Ms. Telles said: “After analyzing many proposals, we found there are no easy answers and you have to start balancing issues. The proposed road would have run 1/2 mile from the beach at Trestle’s. We understand the concern about the state parks, but the San Onofre State Park is actually owned by Camp Pendleton and leased by the state. 95 percent of visitors to that park visit the beach units, and we [Foothill South] would have had no impact on that area. There was never a threat to Trestles. That was a completely fabricated threat.”
Although environmentalists rejoice at the Bush Administration’s uncharacteristic decision in favor of environmental conservation, the larger question still looms: what can be done about traffic on the I-5 between southern Orange and northern San Diego counties? Reynolds believes the solution is simple: “Widen the I-5. It’s an alternative that would quickly gain more support and has the potential to reduce congestion, is less destructive, and needs to be done in any case.”
When asked if this approach is currently on the table, Reynolds responded that the TCA had proposed a plan to widen the I-5, but, among other design issues, the amount of home and business displacement was problematic. Reynolds explained that another plan to widen the I-5 was subsequently developed by the Coalition that “reduced displacement of homes and businesses by 95 percent of the plan proposed by TCA.” Reynolds, Shriver, and their supporters will continue to press their I-5 widening plan, despite the TCA’s opposition.
“The reports out of Cal Trans and the Federal Highway Administration did not meet their safety standards,” countered Ms. Telles, who stated that both agencies have rejected the Coalition’s plan as not feasible. “Widening I-5 has other impacts, and is not an alternative to move forward with because of the costs and impact to the community.”
In Reynolds’ opinion, the Foothill South project is dead; the only remaining question is what proposal will eventually satisfy all parties and so begin the process of reducing congestion and gridlock in one of Southern California’s worse ongoing traffic nightmares.