SANTA ANA — Environmentalists on Thursday agreed to drop their lawsuit against one of Orange County's three public toll roads in exchange for a role in future environmental studies of the project.
The settlement between the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and San Clementians Against Tollroads on one side and the Transportation Corridor Agencies on the other requires tollway officials to "conduct a number of studies and workshops . . . on the subjects of air quality, traffic, parkland and habitat, wetlands, endangered species and water resources." Those studies will focus on the southernmost segment of the Foothill tollway near Cristianitos Canyon.
The 1991 lawsuit had not yet gone to trial.
Tollway opponents had complained that the environmental impact report for that segment was inadequate. But they didn't challenge the northern portion of the road, which is already under construction near Mission Viejo.
"We're happy with the result," said Phil Feyerabend, chairman of San Clementians Against Tollroads. "We will now have a much bigger say in how they study issues such as air quality. . . . We'll be involved in how they look at it."
Feyerabend said the new studies will influence the agency's environmental report, which will be reviewed by the Federal Highway Administration. The previous environmental studies were done under state, rather than federal, laws.
Also on Thursday, the Transportation Corridor Agencies building the toll roads adopted a 1993-94 spending plan of $407 million, a 53% increase over their last such plan. That was due largely to the planned start of construction on the San Joaquin Hills tollway, portions of which are already graded.
The start of toll operations on the first 3.6-mile segment of the Foothill tollway is also a factor, Corridor Agencies officials said. The initial stretch is due to open near Mission Viejo in October, with 50-cent levies in each direction.
The new budget assumes about $75 million in bonds will be sold soon to finance construction of the next Foothill segment, between Portola Parkway South and Santa Margarita Parkway.
The Corridor Agencies have already sold $1.2 billion in bonds for construction of the 15-mile San Joaquin Hills tollway, an extension of the Corona del Mar Freeway between Newport Beach and Interstate 5 near San Juan Capistrano.
Construction of the 3.9-mile Aliso Viejo section of the San Joaquin Hills tollway is expected to begin soon, although tollway officials have declined to specify a date.
Anti-tollway activists pleaded unsuccessfully with officials to stop work on the projects, especially the San Joaquin Hills tollway.
Judy Davis of Irvine, a spokeswoman for Citizens Against the Tollroads, cited many reasons for the work to stop, among them that central Orange County residents are already crowding into Irvine. "I hope you don't mind it when inner-city people come to your city to clean your houses," Santa Ana Councilman Robert L. Richardson fired back after Davis sat down.
Barring court actions, construction of the segment between Moulton Parkway and Laguna Canyon Road is due to begin later this year.
The Eastern tollway between the Riverside Freeway and the Santa Ana Freeway in Irvine is still mired in litigation, with court hearings in December.
In all, five other lawsuits still remain unresolved in tollway foes' battle against the new roads.