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Toll Road Expansion Draws Fire

The route for the 16-mile Foothill South extension will be discussed today at two public meetings. Foes want to preserve land.

June 19, 2004|Erin Ailworth | Times Staff Writer

A battle between environmentalists and transportation officials is expected to begin in earnest today as the public gets an opportunity to react to proposals for building the final leg of Orange County's toll road network.

Seen alternatively as a remedy to traffic congestion in southern Orange County or as an environmental disaster, the 16-mile Foothill South extension is designed to ease traffic as it approaches the San Diego County line.

Officials for the Transportation Corridor Agencies, as well as land use and environmental experts, also will be at Tesoro High School in Rancho Santa Margarita to answer questions regarding six alternative routes for the extension, said agency spokeswoman Clare Climaco. The public hearing starts at 10:30 a.m. and will run in two back-to-back sessions until 6 p.m.

The tollway -- which would run east of Mission Viejo -- has been planned for more than two decades in fast-growing South County. By 2025, for instance, officials expect traffic on the San Diego Freeway in San Clemente to grow almost 60%, to 201,000 trips each weekday.

If something isn't done, Climaco said, the road will eventually become as sluggish as the Riverside Freeway, one of the state's most congested.

But some see the planned extension to the 51-mile tollway as an ineffective Band-Aid.

"The bottom line is that there's really no demonstrated proof that this road is going to solve any long-term problem," said Chris Evans, the U.S. executive director of the Surfrider Foundation.

What the toll route will create, Evans said, is urban sprawl, diminished quality of life and an impaired environment.

Studies released in May revealed that three of the six proposed routes would destroy habitat for endangered species and burrow through San Onofre State Park and the Donna O'Neill Land Conservancy.

The road is an "essential" regional program, said Dan Kelly, vice president of government relations for Rancho Mission Viejo, which established the conservancy. But, he said, the land is not the place for this tollway.

According to environmental studies, 23.1 to 53.7 acres of wetlands and 177 to 426 acres of wildlife habitat -- used by endangered and threatened species such as the California gnatcatcher and the Southern steelhead trout -- would be affected.

Sheila Kessler of San Clemente said she plans to attend one of today's sessions in the hope of reconciling mixed feelings about the road.

"I think the toll road is going to happen," Kessler said. She worried that if the tollway runs through her neighborhood, it would destroy the community she and her husband moved into three years ago.

The issue really boils down to two options, said Brittany McKee, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club, which opposes the tollway: "We are going to destroy a bunch of houses or we are going to destroy a bunch of state parks and open spaces."

"That is not a choice we should have to make," McKee said. "We should be looking for innovative, modern [solutions]."

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