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Orange County

Build Foothill South, Voters Say in Survey

Transit: Poll funded by the Transportation Corridor Agencies finds support for the tollway. About 58% in O.C. favor project; 36% oppose it.

July 12, 2002|DAN WEIKEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite recent controversies surrounding local toll roads, a new poll shows that most Orange County voters still favor construction of the Foothill South, the last piece of the county's 67-mile network of government-run turnpikes.

If built, the tollway would run about 16 miles from Oso Parkway in Mission Viejo to Interstate 5 south of San Clemente. Supporters say the project will relieve South County congestion; opponents contend the toll road is unnecessary and will destroy valuable wildlife habitat.

The poll was paid for by the Transportation Corridor Agencies, the government entity that operates the Foothill, Eastern and San Joaquin Hills toll roads. It is planning to build the Foothill South with at least two lanes in each direction.

The opinion survey, released Thursday, found that roughly 58% of county voters backed the Foothill South project after being told about arguments for and against the road. Slightly more than 36% opposed the tollway and about 5% were undecided.

Last year, TCA pollsters found that 54% of county voters backed the project after being informed of the issues. About 39% were opposed.

"There is no significant shift in either direction," said poll director Bob Meadow, who works for Decision Research, based in San Diego and Washington, D.C. "Given the controversies that the agency has faced, this is a significant accomplishment."

TCA officials are considering a merger of their toll road operations to keep the struggling San Joaquin Hills tollway solvent. Because traffic and revenue have lagged, the highway might default on $1 billion in bonds by 2012.

Revised ridership projections also have prompted the TCA to downsize its plans for the Foothill South from eight to four lanes.

Meanwhile, the Orange County Transportation Authority wants to buy the 91 Express Lanes, a privately owned tollway that runs down the middle of the Riverside Freeway. The private toll lanes have been mired in political controversy, largely because Caltrans gave the toll road operators the right to block major improvements to the Riverside Freeway.

Decision Research, which has experience with transportation-related polls, surveyed 1,200 registered voters--500 in San Clemente, 400 elsewhere in south Orange County and 300 in north and central Orange County. The margin of error ranged from 4.3% to 5.7%.

The poll, which cost $53,000, is part of the TCA's community relations effort in support of the Foothill South project.

Pollsters found that when voters were not informed of the issues related to the road, they favored the project by 56%.

The survey indicated that the largest block of support for the Foothill South was in South County, where 67% of voters backed the tollway. In north and central Orange County, 52% of voters favored the proposal, while in San Clemente 55% did.

Opponents of the Foothill South, however, dismissed the poll as another public relations gimmick by an agency that has been unable to justify the project.

"There are no real traffic forecasts yet or real numbers the public can base a judgment on," said Bill Corcoran, a regional representative for the Sierra Club. "As we learn more and more, the financial risks of this road are apparent."

The Sierra Club, along with the Surfrider Foundation, has made stopping the Foothill South a national priority because of its potential impacts on open space, wildlife habitat and San Onofre State Beach.

TCA officials are in the midst of revising traffic and revenue projections for the entire system. On Thursday, agency board members hired Vollmer Associates for $2.8 million to undertake the studies.

The corridor authority has been concerned about inaccurate traffic projections and recent decisions by the Irvine Co. to dramatically scale back development plans for east Orange County.

Those changes could preclude the expected traffic growth on the Foothill and Eastern tollways, which so far have been running ahead of projections.

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