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Bulldozers Begin Work on O.C.'s First Tollway : Transportation: Long-anticipated start of San Joaquin Hills road project is celebrated, mourned.


LAGUNA HILLS — Between a shopping center and a subdivision of stucco-and-tile homes, a lone bulldozer west of Greenfield Drive cut a swath Thursday through hills dotted with prickly wild artichokes, culminating 20 years of stop-and-go planning and negotiation for the San Joaquin Hills tollway.

The long-anticipated day was celebrated by some and mourned as an unfortunate inevitability by others.

"It's one of the most exciting times, I guess, in my service as a county supervisor," said Thomas F. Riley, the central proponent of the county's toll road projects.

"There's been times of great frustration. . . . (But) the best interest of Orange County is served by those roads. The economy is going to benefit from this transportation corridor, and it's just going to make life better," Riley said.

Norm Grossman, a Laguna Beach planning commissioner and a board member of Laguna Greenbelt Inc., the major plaintiff in lawsuits against the tollway agency, said that for environmentalists to lament Thursday would be like "mourning someone who died five years ago."

"Today is symbolic, but I don't know of what," Grossman said. "This area (where grading was being done) was fully degraded and destroyed five years ago."

A four-mile stretch through Aliso Viejo was rough-graded beginning five years ago by developers, before tollway officials gained title to the land. The developers had agreements with the Board of Supervisors to provide grading or right-of-way for the tollway and other new roads in the area in exchange for their zoning.

The $1.1-billion tollway, intended to ease South County's chronic problems with traffic congestion, is scheduled to connect Interstate 5 in San Juan Capistrano to the Corona del Mar Freeway in Newport Beach by March, 1997.

However, a federal judge's ruling on the latest environmental challenge this week has cast doubt on whether the tollway will run the entire length of that 17.5-mile corridor. At the request of Grossman's group, U.S. District Judge Linda McLaughlin on Tuesday temporarily blocked construction of a 4.5-mile section in the undeveloped areas around Laguna Canyon between El Toro Road and Newport Coast Drive. But she did allow work to begin on the northern and southern ends of the road.

And some tollway agency critics still hope to overturn or revise plans to turn a section of the newly built Newport Coast Drive into part of the tollway and charge tolls there.

But for William Woollett Jr., chief executive officer for the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor Agency, there was plenty of reason to celebrate Thursday.

"I guess my biggest feeling is that, after all these years, we're finally putting something in the ground," Woollett said. "Also, I know it's going to relieve a lot of traffic congestion. It was a good idea in the '70s, and it's still a good idea."

"I think it's a boon for Orange County's economy," he added. "The jobs are important."

Mike Potts, business representative for the Building and Construction Trades Council in Orange County, agreed.

"We're talking about thousands of jobs--and heavy-construction jobs (which) are some of the most affected by the recession," Potts said. "So it's certainly going to have an impact."

Potts said the project will provide work for Teamsters, carpenters, ironworkers, heavy-equipment operators, surveyors, electricians and laborers.

Based on the $1.1-billion budget for the project, "a real conservative estimate is that's a $400-million payroll," he said. "That's an awfully big payroll."

At the construction site Thursday, Patrick Dorsey was looking for riches of another sort.

As the first bulldozer prepared the way for heavier equipment that will begin serious leveling in a few days, Dorsey, a paleontology monitor, followed it. Like a mouse trailing an elephant, Dorsey hiked in the growling Caterpillar's freshly turned trail, periodically stopping to chip the dirt with his pick in search of prehistoric animal remains and fossils.

"It's like gambling," Dorsey said. "Some days you hit it big and some days you don't."

Dorsey's work is required by law to protect valuable historic artifacts that could otherwise be churned up and destroyed by construction. If he notices something possibly worth saving, Dorsey marks it with a pink tape showing workers to leave it undisturbed.

"Somebody else might stop work completely," Dorsey said. "Not me. I'll put this tape around it and let them keep working. Everybody's got a job to do."

Although the bulldozer was not exposing any apparent prehistoric valuables with its relatively shallow cuts into the topsoil, Dorsey said he wouldn't be surprised to see a treasure-trove of fossils, animal teeth and other artifacts once heavier equipment comes in to lop off hilltops and carve out canyons.

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