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Take High Road to Tollway

November 24, 2002

Figuring out whether or where to build a major road through environmentally sensitive territory is a complicated, nuanced job. A federal sledgehammer isn't the way to get it done.

If only the region's congressmen would get that message. It took a U.S. Senate committee to kill an unseemly political move by Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Riverside) to blaze a brazen path through a state park for the Foothill South toll road extension. The rider to a military appropriations bill would have exempted the project from state laws governing the environment, public health and water quality, and from future laws that might restrict roads through state parks. In other words, it would have thrown out most of the important issues affecting the quality of life for area residents so that toll road builders could have their way.

That's an ignorant way to plan a gargantuan construction project. Worse, it stomps all over authority long granted to state and local governments.

Last year, Rep. Darrell E. Issa (R-Vista) won passage for a much milder -- but still meddlesome -- measure that allowed the toll road to be built through San Onofre State Beach, which is leased from the federal government on Camp Pendleton land. The toll road agencies' preferred route for the road would take it through the base and park. Even earlier, former Rep. Ron Packard (R-Vista) gave the toll road extension a boost with a bill that softened federal environmental oversight.

But all this help wasn't enough for the toll road agency, which wanted language allowing it to bypass state environmental review. Issa's office, even though it supports the toll road proposal, wouldn't comply, saying that the project should be subject to the normal process for protecting the environment. So toll road backers found a willing politician in Calvert. Fortunately, California's two senators intervened and put a quick end to this latest D.C. escapade.

As with its ill-conceived cousin, the San Joaquin Hills tollway, the 16.5-mile Foothill South would run through pristine wild lands and possibly harm endangered plants and animals. As with the financially disastrous San Joaquin Hills project, demand for the Foothill South has been questioned. The tollway agency eventually cut it by half, acknowledging that ridership wasn't there.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers initially questioned whether the road was needed but backed off under political pressure.

Planning for the Foothill South involves even more of a balancing act, because Camp Pendleton brass has reservations and the Legislature might move to block the tollway from the state beach.

Local, state and federal agencies are working together on the issue. Let them do their work based on the merits of the project, minus the ham-fisted interference from political interests with tunnel vision -- and without these continued, improper efforts by the toll road agencies to take a detour around larger public interests.

Yes, the process is slow, but it's time for planners to show they learned something from the San Joaquin Hills debacle.

The last thing Orange County needs is another river of underutilized asphalt ruining rare wild lands.

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