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Riverside County Votes to Study Possible Corona-to-Hemet Freeway

The transportation panel is split on whether the east-west route should be a parkway or something bigger, which many residents oppose.

September 04, 2003|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

The Riverside County Transportation Commission on Wednesday pushed ahead with a proposal to create a new east-west thoroughfare between Corona and Hemet by possibly widening Cajalco Road.

The commission voted 20 to 3 to study the potential route, and also approved an "action plan" laying out an aggressive three-year timeline to complete an environmental review of the road project.

"We will shortchange ourselves, shortchange our future and shortchange our kids if we don't prepare for the future," said Commissioner Ameal Moore, also a Riverside councilman, before he voted to support the move.

The vote Wednesday came after more than three hours of testimony from more than 40 residents, all of whom feared the thoroughfare eventually may turn into a freeway through their neighborhoods south of Lake Mathews.

"A freeway would destroy the lives of the rural community who lives here," said Debbie Walsh of Mead Valley.

Planners and politicians agree that the two-lane Cajalco Road is hazardous in spots and needs an upgrade.

Earlier this year, the transportation commission picked the road as the preferred route for a new east-west corridor that they hope will improve traffic in the western end of Riverside County.

But the commission is split over whether the route should be a freeway.

The commission staff and several commissioners envision it first becoming a parkway and then, as traffic increases, a freeway.

For now, they support setting aside a 220-foot-wide right-of-way that could accommodate a freeway in the future.

"We have to plan ahead," said Commissioner Marion Ashley, also a county supervisor, who supported the study plan.

"We can't foreclose the transportation needs of our children and grandchildren."

Commissioner Paul Marchand, a Cathedral City councilman, added that it would cost far more to seize the land in the future.

But some other commissioners and scores of residents say it ought to become nothing greater than a 156-foot-wide tree-lined parkway.

Several residents also expressed concern about the additional air pollution a freeway would create in a region that is already among the most polluted in the nation.

"We will no longer allow the lives and lungs of our children ... to be mitigated away," said Art Cassel of the Community Assn. of Lake Mathews.

Still others spoke out about what they believe is driving the creation of a freeway -- a nearby potential tunnel through the Santa Ana Mountains that has been proposed to serve as a second freeway linking Orange and Riverside counties.

They said planners ought to devote more time to drawing high-paying jobs to Riverside County, rather than creating more ways to shuttle residents to jobs in Orange and Los Angeles counties.

The residents wanted commissioners to rule out the possibility of a freeway, a move supported by three commissioners from Indian Wells, Rancho Mirage and Calimesa who voted against moving forward.

"I feel freeways are an abomination.... They contribute to urban sprawl," said Commissioner Gregory V. Schook, also a councilman from Calimesa.

"The legacy I want to leave is ... 50 years from now we will still have a lovely area around Lake Mathews.

"I don't want to lay the groundwork" for a freeway.

But other commissioners and staff emphasized that the panel was only moving forward with a study, and that there would be many more opportunities for public input.

"We're only looking at a study," said Commissioner John F. Tavaglione, also chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. "We're saying, What could it be, what might it be and, perhaps, what should it be?"

The meeting, watched by more than 100 residents, was the commission's most attended and second longest ever.

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