Opposition is growing in south Orange County to a proposed 12-mile highway tunnel that would run from the Irvine area, under parts of the Santa Ana Mountains and into Riverside County.
Although the idea has been debated for years, it is now getting more attention from regional transportation planners. And residents and elected officials say they are worried about more traffic coming into their neighborhoods.
"This is an absurd idea," said Karl Warkomski, mayor of Aliso Viejo. "This will inundate our local thoroughfares and surface streets with the extra traffic, and they don't have any plans about what to do when they get here."
"I think every single South County city is going to be against it," Warkomski said Wednesday night at a public forum in San Juan Capistrano attended by more than 40 residents.
The mayor plans to ask the Aliso Viejo City Council to take a position against the tunnel and also an alternative that would expand Ortega Highway.
It was the final of five forums the Orange County Transportation Authority has held to get the public's opinion about options to improve the congested travel between Orange and Riverside counties on the 91 Freeway.
A three-county transportation panel meets today in Riverside to discuss the alternatives.
Transportation officials are finishing an 18-month, $3.3-million study that looked at new routes and mass-transit options to take pressure off the freeway, the only major link between the fast-growing Inland Empire and Orange County's ample job market.
Congress recently approved $15.8 million to study the feasibility of a new transportation corridor -- possibly a tunnel -- between the Inland Empire and Orange County.
Motorists make about 250,000 trips a day on the Riverside Freeway. By 2025, commuters are expected to make more than 400,000 daily trips. Dealing with such growth has long been a source of political tension between Riverside and Orange counties.
Elected officials are wary of public reaction, the cost, finance strategies and potential damage to the environment.
But with no funding, and construction not expected for at least 12 years, communities like those in south Orange County will get numerous opportunities to speak their mind, said Bill Campbell, OCTA board chairman and a county supervisor whose district includes parts of South County.
"We welcome their opinions," Campbell said. But it "may take several ideas to help alleviate the traffic on the 91."
If there is a successful campaign to kill the tunnel idea, it won't be the first time South County cities have fought together. They waged a bitter battle against the county's plan to put an international airport at the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station that ended in success in 2002.
Transportation options discussed at the forum included an elevated, six-lane expressway incorporating a high-speed rail line on the Riverside Freeway, building a highway parallel to the freeway from the Foothill Transportation Corridor in Orange County to Interstate 15 in Riverside County, and widening Ortega Highway to six lanes.
The most ambitious proposal is a tunnel-freeway corridor that would add lanes on the Riverside Freeway right-of-way and connect an area near the Eastern and Foothill tollways in Irvine to Cajalco Road on Interstate 15 in Corona.
Many commuters and elected officials in Riverside County support the tunnel-freeway idea, Corona councilman Jeff Miller said.
"I endorse the Cajalco alignment," he said. "I and the City Council have always supported building a new corridor outside of the 91 to help relieve traffic off the 91."
At the forum, Laguna Niguel council member Cathryn DeYoung said both the Ortega Highway and tunnel proposals were bad ideas.
DeYoung, who is running for county supervisor in the 5th District, passed out campaign brochures that called the ideas the Terrible Tunnel and the Ortega Nightmare.
She said the proposals would encourage Riverside County commuters to travel into South County areas, and connect to the I-5 "where there aren't any improvements to handle the additional load."
"You'll be turning the I-5 into a virtual parking lot," she said.
As for improving Ortega Highway, Warkomski said it was too costly. Putting in six lanes on the curving highway could cost $4.5 billion and increase daily traffic from 12,000 vehicles to 35,000, officials say.
"These ideas only move vehicles from one spot to another," Warkomski said, criticizing them as "traffic projects" and not "traffic solutions."
A transportation policy panel is expected to vote on the alternatives next month. A meeting of regional transportation groups is expected to discuss the panel's recommendation in December.
"The goal is to have a locally preferred strategy," said Ted Nguyen, an OCTA spokesman, "and that could mean refining the alternatives to one or a combination of several."