Southern Orange County cities and the county's largest landowner are stepping up their opposition to a proposed highway tunnel under the Santa Ana Mountains to Riverside County -- even as it continues to gain support.
Once seen as a longshot, the tunnel is emerging as the Inland Empire's latest hope for reducing chronic congestion on the Riverside Freeway -- the only major link between more affordable housing in Riverside County and job-rich Orange County.
The 11.5-mile tunnel would connect Interstate 15 in Corona to the Foothill-Eastern tollway in Irvine. Its most expensive version could cost at least $8.5 billion. Last week, the tunnel was designated one of several major alternatives warranting further study.
Of all the options, the budding rift over the tunnel has created the potential for a regional clash similar to the battle over a proposed airport at Orange County's closed El Toro Marine Corps base.
"There are candidates hoping to create an issue and get people fired up against the tunnel" in the same way public opinion formed against an airport at El Toro, said political consultant Scott Hart of Newport Beach. "It depends on whether it's successful. If it is, more candidates will make it an issue."
The El Toro dispute, which involved four countywide elections and more than $100 million in studies, commercials and campaigns, ended without an airport or any alternative to handle the region's growing demand for commercial air travel.
The tunnel has been a hot topic in southern Orange County this fall. Since October, the Irvine and Laguna Beach city councils have declared their opposition. The Lake Forest City Council wants transportation planners to give the tunnel a lower priority than other options. City officials contend that streets would be inundated with tens of thousands of motorists using it as a more convenient route to get to work, shopping or the beach.
A candidate in next year's South County supervisorial race has made opposition to "the terrible tunnel" a battle cry of her campaign, hoping to stir up voters against the idea. One of her glossy four-page mailers blares "Stop Them!" while showing a wave of Inland Empire traffic headed to the beach.
Meanwhile, the Irvine Co., Orange County's largest developer -- it once owned a fifth of the county -- has sought to scuttle the tunnel. It has proposed and strongly supported an alternate highway atop or adjacent to the Riverside Freeway.
Company officials say they're worried about the cost of accommodating traffic that would spill into their planned communities.
Polling for the Orange County Transportation Authority shows that Orange County residents prefer the Irvine Co.'s idea over the tunnel, which could handle more than 100,000 vehicles a day.
Opponents also are concerned about environmental damage to the Cleveland National Forest and the tunnel's estimated construction cost -- at least $5.5 billion to $8.5 billion depending on whether there are four or six lanes.
"The tunnel is a waste of money. It will soak up all our transportation dollars that we will need in the future," said Laguna Niguel Councilwoman Cathryn De Young, whose county supervisorial campaign against former Assemblywoman Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) produced the anti-tunnel brochure. "If you have a behemoth like this one, it could become a runaway freight train."
De Young's mailer was prepared by the same political consultants -- Arnold Forde and Stu Mollrich of Newport Beach -- who were also two key strategists in the anti-airport campaign.
Partly because of the opposition in Orange County, transportation officials are recommending that the tunnel be kept off a list of potential projects to be funded by an extension of Measure M, the county's transportation sales tax. The ballot measure, which is planned for the November 2006 election, would raise an estimated $12 billion over 30 years. It needs a two-thirds majority to win.
"It's a loser in Measure M, considering all the opposition," said Monte Ward, who heads OCTA's tax extension effort.
But across the county line, polling prepared for a local economic summit found that Inland Empire residents overwhelmingly support the tunnel as an alternative to the Riverside Freeway.
Traffic in the corridor is expected to increase from 250,000 trips a day to almost 450,000 by 2025.
Officials from cities along the Riverside Freeway, including Corona and Riverside, believe Santa Ana Canyon cannot handle a second highway. The option is hampered by narrow geography, air quality concerns and the possibility of condemning hundreds of homes and businesses.
"We all have to work together to fix this problem," said Corona Councilman Steve Nolan, a tunnel supporter. "I'm so sorry this will impact south Orange County, but this is a regional problem."