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Schedule for toll road set back 2 years

Planners say complex permit process means work on controversial Foothill South extension won't begin until 2010 at the earliest.

March 01, 2007|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

For more than a year, transportation planners have said that preparations for a toll road passing through San Onofre State Beach were on schedule.

On Wednesday, that message was revised.

Planners now say it will take at least two years longer than expected to get funding and permits for the controversial turnpike, which will complete Orange County's network of toll roads and link Orange and San Diego counties.

The Irvine-based Transportation Corridor Agencies had hoped to secure funding for the Foothill South by 2008, but underestimated the complexity of the permit process.

"There are realities that include getting the necessary state and federal permits and agreements, and that takes time," said Lisa Telles, a toll road spokeswoman.

The environmental requirements for state and federal wildlife agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are crucial for funding and eventual approval by the state Coastal Commission.

Telles said planning was continuing. "We certainly haven't stopped any preparations," she said.

The announcement was made at an operations and finance committee meeting, a year after the toll road agency approved the alignment to complete the 241 toll road.

Estimated to cost $875 million, the tollway extension would run from Interstate 5 at Basilone Road south of San Clemente to Oso Parkway in Rancho Santa Margarita. It would connect with the Foothill toll road after cutting through San Onofre State Beach and the Donna O'Neill Land Conservancy, a 1,200-acre preserve set aside as mitigation for housing development.

Despite the long permit process and scheduling setback, the toll road is still needed, said Jerry Amante, a toll road director and Tustin councilman. "What we're doing is important to mobility in the county," he said. "This will contribute to the quality of life for those who live, work, and commute in the county."

Tollway officials have concluded that the route -- one of eight options studied -- would do the least harm to the environment and avoid the cost of condemning hundreds of homes and businesses in South County.

The Foothill South would handle 24,000 to 52,000 daily car trips by motorists in 2025, depending on the section of highway, the toll agency predicts.

In addition to environmental work, other hurdles include several legal challenges, including a lawsuit by the state attorney general's office. The lawsuit says the proposed alignment is too close to an ancient Native American burial ground.

Environmentalists have attacked the proposed extension, in part because it cuts through one of the state's most popular parks and campgrounds.

"This project is already a failure, it's an environmental disaster, it's financially unsound, and it won't solve the traffic problems," said James Birkelund, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group.

He said the change was good news because it could delay the road's construction.

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