"Growth will occur anyway," said Steve Hogan, a traffic planner with the Orange County Environmental Management Agency. "The truth is, there is certainly enough traffic demand already to justify construction of the (tollway). If the traffic doesn't go there, it will go someplace else. People will use Moulton Parkway and other arterioles in that area. . . . Without the corridor, we can help the situation somewhat with other street improvements, but we're not going to be able to help things significantly."
At the heart of the tollway defense are traffic studies dating back to 1976 that show horrendous conditions on I-5 and Pacific Coast Highway unless the San Joaquin Hills tollway is built.
Project boosters claim that by 2010 the tollway will result in 30,000 to 40,000 fewer trips on I-5 than would occur if the San Joaquin Hills route isn't built. On nearby Moulton Parkway, the number of daily trips would be cut in half.
Average traffic speeds, except near tollway ramps, will increase in the area, according to the EIR. One study suggests a trip on the tollway could result in a 15-minute time savings during rush hour from Irvine to San Juan Capistrano contrasted with the same trip on I-5.
All of this will result in a 14.7% reduction in average carbon monoxide exposure levels in an area that not only includes South County, but portions of Santa Ana, Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach as well, according to the EIR.
The EPA is skeptical, arguing that the carbon monoxide data does not reflect the tollway's tendency to encourage trips that would not be taken now due to congestion. What's more, the EPA claims, the tollway will make it easier for motorists to justify traveling longer distances to destinations that are currently forsaken.
Add to this the fact that the tollway will stimulate growth beyond what county officials currently project, even in outlying areas such as Riverside and north San Diego County, the EPA contends. That's because people will want to buy cheaper housing in those locations--as they do now--and commute to jobs in Orange County.
The tollway's draft EIR acknowledges that growth not only could be stimulated in outlying areas, but that development already in the works may be speeded up.
Tollway officials counter that such factors are considered in regional analyses undertaken jointly by the region's growth-monitoring and smog agencies--the Southern California Assn. of Governments and the South Coast Air Quality Management District. The result was a decision to include the tollway in their regional air quality and mobility plans, which seek to comply with federal clean air deadlines for Southern California.
That's true, EPA officials admit. But those regional air quality and mobility plans have not yet been approved by--you guessed it--the EPA.
What's more, the tollway's own environmental review shows that, based on newer computer traffic modeling by county staffers, traffic volumes will be sufficient by the year 2010 to push carbon monoxide levels along some sections of the road higher than federal guidelines would permit.
This would occur in the corridor between Laguna Canyon Road and Sand Canyon Road, and near John Wayne Airport, from Jamboree Road to Birch Street.
"This is an unacceptable impact," argues the EPA's written critique of the tollway project.
Environmentalists cite the county's own studies from the mid-1980s, which showed that even with the San Joaquin Hills tollway, average speeds on I-5 may be lower in 2010 than they are now, largely because of continued growth.
"Why should we support the tollway," Brown asks, "when things are only going to get worse? I don't have to have the answer . . . I know enough to know that what's being proposed is not going to cure anything."
More than 300,000 new residential units and millions of square feet in office and retail space as well as recreational and educational facilities are planned in South County. Even if the transportation system could handle such an impact, more than 20% of the traffic expected to use I-5 and the San Joaquin Hills tollway will simply be vehicles passing through from places such as Los Angeles and Riverside, tollway officials say. All of Southern California is growing, tollway officials argue, so even if Orange County were to slow its own growth, the roads would still be overwhelmed by traffic from other locations.
In 1986, county documents showed that that even with all planned transportation improvements in place, the county's highway and transit system would be insufficient to meet expected demand.
Even the EIR for the San Joaquin Hills tollway concedes, for example, that traffic would flow freely only if 30% of the rush-hour trips are in the car-pool lanes. That's a level of ride-sharing that experts admit has not been achieved anywhere in the United States.