VENTURA — If you think Southern California's big developers can't get what they want anymore, consider this: Orange County is bankrupt, Laguna Canyon was under water for a while last month and yet a billion-dollar toll road across the canyon is moving forward, funded largely by money in the county's infamous investment pool.
Last week, a federal appeals court pushed aside lingering environmental concerns, making way for the 18-mile-long San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor. All that remains to be built is a four-mile stretch across Laguna Canyon, where grading began just before Christmas. When completed, the road will be a monument to the continuing power of the county's government, the big landowners and the "growth machine," that alliance of government and business that profits from development.
But the road will also stand as a testament to everything we have failed to learn about urban growth in Southern California during the last 30 years.
The political consensus that built postwar Southern California has gradually collapsed. We are no longer sure, as we were in the '50s and '60s, that growth is good. Yet, we are not entirely convinced that growth is bad, either. We should be pursuing a new vision of how to accommodate needed growth, while still upholding environmental values, in an increasingly hemmed-in region. But buying into such a vision requires making choices. Since none have been made, the region is fragmenting into petty interest groups, each battling to protect a narrow set of values while washing its hands of any responsibility for the region as a whole.
It was this lack of consensus that turned the San Joaquin toll-road fight into a game of chicken between Orange County's road-building agency and local environmentalists. Compromise was not an option. The San Joaquin was going to be a six-lane highway barreling through a pretty canyon, or else it was not going to get built. In the end, the environmentalists were no match for the growth machine. But in the long run, it may not be worth the price.
For a century, unrestrained growth was generally regarded as worth the price. The rise of Southern California was engineered by a coalition of builders, boosters and bankers, and this growth machine brought many benefits to the average citizen--a cheap house, a good job, a back-yard barbecue, to name a few.
This version of the California Dream has not been a reality for a generation. In the '70s, environmentalists appeared on the scene, home prices took off and median incomes stagnated. It became harder and harder for the growth machine to get things done the old-fashioned way--by building. Partly for this reason, the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor came to assume great symbolic importance to the growth coalition in Orange County. As the first highway to be built in more than 20 years, it would be tangible proof that the government-builder alliance still had clout.
With the enthusiastic support of the Irvine Co. and other big landowners, the county and several adjoining cities established three joint-powers agencies--known collectively as the Orange County Transportation Corridor Agencies--to build three toll roads deep into south Orange County.
The San Joaquin and its counterparts, the Eastern and Foothill toll roads, are not without merit: More highways are needed in Orange County. But that's not the end of the discussion: Constructing these toll roads--or just about anything else in Orange County--will harm the environment. In the absence of an overarching vision of the region's future, the fate of big-development projects like the San Joaquin can't be determined by technical arguments, one way or the other. Instead, it is shaped by power politics and legal hardball.
Orange County's growing environmental movement understood this, and organized a series of protests to try to sway public opinion against the road. Aided by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the environmentalists also pursued an aggressive legal strategy to stop the road in court. Their biggest weapon was the California gnatcatcher, a two-inch songbird that environmentalists claim is on the verge of extinction. Listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the gnatcatcher held the potential to shut the road down all by itself.
But the Orange County growth coalition exerted considerable pressure on the Clinton Administration to let the road go through. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt gave the road his personal blessing in spite of the gnatcatcher predicament.