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Tollway Hinges on Smog Issue

COVER STORY: An Occasional close-up look at people and places. LAST OF TWO PARTS


When it comes to the San Joaquin Hills tollway, there are two very different stories making the rounds these days.

Listen to the boosters: If built, the 17.5-mile tollway linking San Juan Capistrano with Newport Beach will take about a fourth of cars off of traffic-choked Interstate 5--Orange County's "main street." The hours spent bumper-to-bumper would be cut in half. With traffic moving more efficiently, smog would be reduced.

Now hear the tollway foes: The gain for some South County commuters with the tollway will be somebody else's loss when it comes to air pollution, loss of wildlife and lifestyle. Carbon monoxide levels in some cases will approach or exceed federal standards, whereas today they do not.

That's the debate. And the outcome will affect the quality of life for years to come.

Air quality drives regional planning these days, and it's the make-or-break issue that both sides concede may dictate the fate of the tollway, which will be discussed in a series of public hearings beginning Thursday at Santa Ana City Hall.

Road builders are waging a tough campaign to prove that the San Joaquin Hills tollway will reduce smog levels in a wide area stretching from Santa Ana to San Onofre, even though it's expected to handle more than 150,000 trips per day.

Already doubtful of the air quality benefits claimed for the tollway, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has gone even further, challenging Orange County's long-cherished strategies for growth, the county's biggest industry through the go-go days of the past two decades.

"Let's face it, if they build this road it will be doomsville," says Elisabeth Brown, president of Laguna Greenbelt Inc., one of the environmental groups seeking to halt the tollway project. "It will mean the urbanization of the entire area. The reason that people came here would be gone. We would never see the hills again."

In its arguments against the tollway, the EPA charges that local officials are squandering opportunities to revamp Orange County's development destiny.

In short, the EPA and environmentalists are claiming that county officials are legally obligated to consider downzoning to prevent growth that would generate tollway traffic. They also suggest that the county might cluster development into denser pockets that can be served both by mass transit and improvements to existing roads.

"There are potentials for land-use changes, and those should be looked at," said Jeane Dunn Gesselbrecht, an analyst with the EPA. "Where are the alternatives to putting a major corridor in that location? If land-use planning changes could be accommodated, then that may be a sensible solution to protect air quality."

It's too late for that, tollway officials argue, since 98% of the land involved is already committed, either to development or open space, and downzoning would require financial compensation to landowners.

And that, says the EPA, is precisely what's wrong with Orange County's planning. Development decisions are made before transportation projects receive ultimate approvals and funding. Instead of determining what level of traffic and air pollution the land can sustain, EPA officials claim, the county has decided to build roads to accommodate the plans of major land owners and developers.

What's more, the EPA notes that only 56% of the land along the San Joaquin Hills route is currently in "existing land-uses," while another 42% is committed to planned housing and commercial developments that don't yet exist and potentially could be scaled back.

Although tollways officials are loathe to admit that the tollway will spur growth, the EPA contends the highway would induce new development by opening up otherwise untraversed terrain.

Indeed, the very agreements that set up the tollway agency in 1985 refer to several benefits. Chief among them was to facilitate "orderly" growth in the virgin back country of Orange County.

By the county's own estimates, 500,000 people will be added to South County's current population of about 550,000 by the year 2010. But county officials have argued strongly that these people will come whether or not roads are here to handle the added traffic.

The draft environmental impact report for the San Joaquin Hills tollway puts it succinctly: Highways do not have "a consistent or predictable impact on land-use."

That comment echoes the beliefs of USC Prof. Genevieve Giuliano, who contends that growth is affected more by the availability of developable land, favorable economic conditions and "local political support."

To buttress their arguments, tollway officials cite a recent study showing that population and automobile travel surged dramatically in the San Francisco Bay Area from 1975 to 1987, even though miles of highway lanes increased only 3.3% during the same period.

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