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With a State Park at Stake, Opponents of O.C. Tollway Extension Offer Directions

Environmental groups back a beltway and I-5 widening to avoid building the Foothill South turnpike through San Onofre State Beach.

January 13, 2006|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

Opponents of building a toll road through San Onofre State Beach challenged assertions Thursday by Orange County turnpike officials that there were no better alternatives to carving a new highway across the popular reserve.

At a daylong public hearing in Mission Viejo, a coalition of environmental groups suggested widening Interstate 5 through San Clemente and building a beltway linking the Foothill-Eastern toll road with the freeway and another tollway near San Juan Capistrano.

"We need to better explore all the options," said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation. "Is the loss of parkland really necessary, or can we shoot for a higher alternative?"

Board members for the Transportation Corridor Agencies are considering a route for the six-lane Foothill South tollway, which would run about 16 miles from Rancho Santa Margarita to Interstate 5 in or near San Clemente.

Tollway planners ruled out improving the freeway as a viable alternative in the final environmental impact report for the $875-million Foothill South project. The $20-million report, which considered eight options, recommended a route through the northern half of San Onofre, a state park that contains endangered species, wetlands and world-renowned surfing spots.

Board members are scheduled to select a route Thursday.

Tollway planners said widening Interstate 5 by one lane in each direction from Irvine to the San Diego County line would require the acquisition of more than 1,200 homes and businesses. The hardest-hit area would be San Clemente, with 333 homes and 178 businesses needed for right-of-way.

Even with the improvements, tollway officials say, the additional lanes would not be enough to handle a projected increase in daily vehicle trips from 126,000 to 201,000 by 2025. Weekend traffic is expected to jump from 161,000 trips a day to 241,000, a flow comparable to the heavily congested Riverside Freeway.

Officials say widening Interstate 5 by one lane each way currently has no funding sources and could cost more than $1 billion because of the property acquisitions. An agency study of widening the freeway by two lanes in each direction pegged the cost at $2.4 billion.

But tollway opponents said during Thursday's hearing that widening I-5 through San Clemente would result in the taking of only 23 to 27 buildings. The finding was based on a site review and preliminary analysis by KCA Engineers Inc., a San Francisco firm hired by opponents.

"Feasible non-toll-road alternatives exist," said Michael Fitts, an attorney for the Endangered Habitats League. "Our results shatter the TCA's numbers."

Another study for the state parks foundation by Smart Mobility Inc., a Vermont-based transportation consultant, concluded that traffic growth in southern Orange County could be handled by improving Interstate 5 and major streets. Some of the adverse impacts, the study said, could "be avoided by obvious design measures never considered by TCA."

Opponents said that improving the freeway could be combined with a tolled beltway that would start at the Foothill-Eastern turnpike and loop south through Mission Viejo and Rancho Mission Viejo, where new developments are planned.

James Brown, the TCA's chief engineer, said a beltway would deal with the problem of east-west traffic but wouldn't handle all the anticipated congestion on Interstate 5.

"They offer no detail at this time. It is more of a rough sketch," Brown said. "The tollway is still better than widening the 5 and the beltway idea."

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