The county's toll road agency will spend $16.5 million to start designing a highway route that some conservationists predict will wreak more environmental damage than any other Orange County toll road to date.
Although some federal regulators remain unconvinced the $644-million Foothill South toll road is needed, a Transportation Corridor Agencies board voted Thursday to earmark funds for the preliminary design of a route through near-virgin wilderness in South County, connecting Oso Parkway near Mission Viejo with Interstate 5 in northern San Diego County.
That route would slice San Onofre State Beach in half and cut through what has been called one of the highest concentrations of endangered plants and animals in the United States. Even so, it is favored by the toll road agency and some local cities.
The agency will not spend money designing an alternative westerly route that some scientists say would be far less damaging. The alternative route would avoid San Onofre State Beach and traverse less pristine open land north of San Clemente.
Toll-road spokeswoman Lisa Telles said the board is taking a risk in approving millions of dollars in design work before the project route is approved by several key federal agencies. But the agency wants to move swiftly and efficiently, she said.
"That is a risk the board is willing to to take," Telles said. "Time is very important."
Environmental attorney Joel Reynolds of the Natural Resources Defense Council questioned the wisdom of Thursday's vote, saying that too many questions remain unanswered.
It seems a waste, Reynolds said, "to spend money at this point in time to design a road when there are tremendous uncertainties about the need and location of the road."
Reynolds' group fought unsuccessfully in court to stop the building of an earlier agency project, the San Joaquin Hills toll road.
But board members have said they are confident that Foothill South will be built, and future growth in South County merits the proposed four-lane, 16-mile highway segment.
On Thursday, the board voted 11 to 0 with two members abstaining to move ahead with a $644-million contract with Saddleback Constructors, approving the $16.5-million initial design phase. That phase should take about 18 months and encompass about 35% of the total design work for the road, Telles said.
The proposed route would cut north and south through the center of the finger-shaped San Onofre State Beach, taking about 30% of the park's 2,200-acre inland portion and part of the San Mateo campground. A park interpretive center, a service road and entrance center lay in its path.
"When you take those facilities out, in our view, you're taking the whole campground," district parks Supt. Jack Roggenbuck said. The state Parks Department is on record opposing the route through the park. "We think others should be pursued," he said.
Both the "CP" route the agency favors and the westerly "BX" route preferred by environmentalists must be weighed during the federal review process.
In an unusual conflict, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have expressed strong reservations whether the road is even needed, questioning the agency's traffic and population projections. Without their sign-off, the project's future remains murky.
Another hurdle is whether the CP plan's routing through sensitive wetlands and other habitat rich with endangered species will cause problems during the federal permitting process.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has warned the toll road agency that its CP route would not comply with the federal Clean Water Act because of the potential damage to wetlands, according to federal documents obtained by The Times under the Freedom of Information Act.
"It has been determined that the proposed CP alignment would not only impact more acres of wetlands than the proposed BX alignment, it would also impact higher-quality wetlands," Corps regulatory official Richard J. Schubel wrote the toll road agency in March 1997. Among the wetlands damaged, he wrote, would be "vernal pools, vernal marshes, seeps and slope wetlands, which are extremely rare in Southern California. . . .
"The CP alignment would result in significant impacts to several of the highest quality riparian systems in the region, San Juan Creek and San Mateo Creek."
The toll road agency disagreed with the Corps, countering in a June 1997 letter that in fact, the BX alignment would affect more wetlands overseen by the Corps.
"While the TCA agrees that vernal pools, vernal marshes, seeps and slope wetlands are rare in Southern California," wrote toll-road official Steve Letterly, "we believe the highest quality wetlands in the [Foothill South] study area are located along the BX alignment in Chiquita Canyon between Oso Parkway and San Juan Creek."
No easy resolution is in sight. If the dispute is not resolved by next week over the need for the road, federal agencies may enter into a special arbitration process never before used in California.
* DEVELOPMENT: About 250 people debated plans for 131,000 acres in South County. B4
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A Road Runs Through It
Orange County's toll road agency wants to build a new road (CP alignment) that would bisect San Onofre State Beach. Environmentalists favor a more westerly route (BX).