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Final Leg of Disputed Toll Road Set to Open

Transportation: The segment between Laguna Niguel and Newport Beach will debut Nov. 21. Opponents had decried the project's impact on the environment.


NEWPORT BEACH — When one of the most controversial projects in Orange County history, the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor, opens next week, it will mark the beginning of a new era for transportation planners but the end of a long fight for environmentalists.

"A lot of people have been waiting for this," said Michele Miller, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Corridor Agencies, which built the toll road scheduled to open its final segment on Nov. 21. "It really opens up the doors and gives them another alternative."

Lida Lenney, the former mayor of Laguna Beach who staunchly opposed the project because it cut a swath through Laguna Canyon Hills, has a different view.

"It makes me very sad," she said. "This is the kind of thing that incites violence in me as a person. I will never travel that road."

If traffic forecasts are correct, however, lots of other people will.

After the first full year of operation, the toll road agency expects at least 70,000 cars a day to travel the $1.5-billion, 15-mile road, which roughly parallels the San Diego and Santa Ana freeways between Laguna Niguel and Newport Beach. They will do that, forecasters predict, because the trip will take less than half as long as a commute that now lasts 45 to 90 minutes. But the ride will cost from 25 cents to $2, depending on where one enters or exits.

The project, funded largely by bonds, is the cornerstone of three major toll roads in the south and east parts of Orange County. The roads, totaling 70 miles, have been under construction since 1993 and are expected to be completed by 2003.

The San Joaquin Hills road's first seven-mile segment, from Greenfield Drive in Laguna Niguel to Laguna Canyon Road in Laguna Beach, opened July 24 and carries about 9,800 cars a day, Miller said. Although that is less than the 10,000 to 15,000 cars originally projected, she said, the toll road agency is satisfied with the number.

"It's in the ballpark," Miller said, adding that traffic on the first part of the new toll road is growing by 3% to 5% a week. "The road is definitely performing well. . . . We're excited about it, and I think that many people in Orange County are excited."

The response however, has not always been positive.

Environmental activists chained themselves to bulldozers in 1993. The tactic caught on and was repeated by dozens of others over the next two years. Cut free by firefighters, eight of the original protesters were arrested and charged with misdemeanor trespassing, eventually agreeing to a settlement under which they performed community service.

Other protests included candlelight vigils, the symbolic covering of portions of the canyon with protective blankets and rallies attended by thousands.

Activists also filed an array of legal challenges, trying to block the project on the grounds that it would adversely affect some of the communities through which it passed and seriously damage the environment of Laguna Canyon, home to the endangered California gnatcatcher.

In the end, though, all the protests and legal challenges failed, allowing developers to announce recently that the final stretch of the road would open Nov. 21, just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday and more than three months ahead of schedule.

"We did our best," Lenney said. "I don't know of anything we could have done that we didn't do; the bulldozers were just too powerful."

Elisabeth Brown, an environmentalist opposed to the project, agreed. "It's a monster," she said of the soon-to-be-opened road. "It's as bad as we had imagined."

Trips during its first three days of operation--until 10 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 24--will be free, giving commuters a chance to try the full route from Laguna Niguel to John Wayne Airport, Miller said.

"This is kind of a first-time deal for Californians," she said, "and we want them to get on and see where it takes them."

The only previous public toll road built in the state during the last 75 years, she said, is her agency's own Foothill Transportation Corridor, a portion of which first opened in south Orange County in 1993.

After Nov. 24, she said, commuters using the new road will pay a toll. Those traveling north on it will pay as they enter the road, and those traveling south will pay as they exit. On the southernmost section, which has been open since July, the situation is reversed: Drivers going north pay as they exit, and those traveling south pay as they enter.

The toll at each point of entry or exit will be a fixed amount, Miller said, with motorists traveling in either direction (who, presumably, haven't paid at any other point) being charged the full $2 fare at a mainline toll plaza about midway along the route. But on other, shorter routes, the charge can be as little as 25 cents.

"The assumption is that most people will travel the full length of the road," Miller said.

Motorists will be able to pay in one of three ways, she said.

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