The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California will study the feasibility of boring an 11-mile-long tunnel under the Cleveland National Forest, adding some political muscle to a proposal that could give Inland Empire commuters a direct route to Orange County.
Dismissed by critics as farfetched and overly expensive, the tunnel is one of several options under consideration by regional transportation agencies trying to alleviate the traffic crush between Orange and Riverside counties. It could also carry water pipes between the two regions.
"If they decide to build a transit tunnel and we can run a pipeline through it, we'll pay for part of the tunnel. It makes it worth doing," said Wes Bannister, chairman of the Metropolitan Water District's board of directors. Other agencies and companies could also benefit from a joint tunnel project by stringing fiber-optic cables, oil pipes, gas lines and telephone cables through it.
"There's a world of opportunity here for everybody," Bannister said.
The proposed tunnel has met resistance from environmentalists, who oppose further development in the national forest, and from the Irvine Co., which says the project would be environmentally destructive.
Other traffic solutions under consideration include building a railway or adding a second level to the congested Riverside Freeway.
While transportation officials expect to decide on a strategy by the end of the year, water officials are skeptical, saying it could take much longer just to get an accurate picture of the geology of the Santa Ana Mountains.
"It would be nice to know what we're really getting into," Bannister said.
The MWD is Southern California's major water wholesaler, providing drinking water to nearly 18 million people in parts of Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.
Water officials said they have known for more than a decade that they would eventually need to push a pipe through the forest to meet growing demand and carry water from Lake Mathews in an unincorporated area of western Riverside County to south Orange County, Long Beach and San Diego.
When congressional representatives Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), Gary G. Miller (R-Diamond Bar) and Ken Calvert (R-Riverside) began an effort to tap $30 million in federal funds to study a multiuse tunnel, the MWD board decided to push up its plans to map the geology of the Santa Ana Mountains.
The tunnel's biggest cheerleader said he was heartened by the water board's decision and believes it bolsters the chances of the tunnel being chosen as the preferred alternative.
Bill Vardoulis, a civil engineer and former Irvine mayor, devised the tunnel idea and has nearly single-handedly lobbied for it in government boardrooms in Orange and Riverside counties for the last five years.
He welcomed the interest from the water district, which he said years ago would benefit from bringing water through the tunnel from Lake Mathews. He also has suggested replacing and burying aging high-power voltage transmitters that now string through the forest.
"If you consider multiple users, it makes more sense than just transportation," he said. "It all helps pay the cost."
The project would be expensive and -- from a civil engineering point of view -- very ambitious.
One of the concerns raised by consultants studying the project is how to remove the exhaust from nearly 125,000 cars that would pass through the tunnel daily. Vardoulis said drilling vents in the tunnel was a "doable" solution.
"None of these issues are overwhelming," Vardoulis said. "The technology is out there. The question is, how much does it cost."
Among the project's detractors is the Irvine Co., which believes the tunnel would be destructive to largely master-planned south Orange County. The Irvine Co. is the largest landowner in Orange County.
Others question the wisdom of running a second road through -- or under -- the Cleveland National Forest, which already is bisected by Ortega Highway. Road-building was heavily restricted in national forests during the Clinton administration, a policy reversed by President Bush.
Last week, the Bush administration announced it was dropping a wide-ranging Clinton-era rule that placed nearly a third of the country's forest lands off-limits to road-building, logging and oil and gas development.
The Orange County Transportation Authority and the Riverside County Transportation Commission are seven months from completing a $3.3-million study of potential solutions to ease traffic congestion, such as building the tunnel, a new railway or a second deck atop the Riverside Freeway.
Although transit officials are not favoring any one idea, Riverside transportation officials said MWD's participation would only add to the discussion.
"For years, everyone worked in isolation of each other," said Robin Lowe, chairwoman of the Riverside County Transportation Commission. "I think we've all come to realize the only way to be successful is to all come together."