Backing away from his neutral stance, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday urged the California Coastal Commission to approve a controversial tollway in Orange County that would pass through San Onofre State Beach, one of California's most popular parks.
"I have concluded that this project is essential to protect our environment and the quality of life for everyone in California," Schwarzenegger said in a letter to Patrick Kruer, chairman of the Coastal Commission. "The project can be built in a manner that will enhance and foster use of the coast and protect coastal resources."
Estimated to cost $875 million, the 16-mile Foothill South tollway is billed as the final link in the network of toll roads operated by Transportation Corridor Agencies. Planners say the highway will accommodate growth in southern Orange County and relieve congestion on the busy 5 Freeway, but critics have long contended the road will degrade the beach and its famous surf breaks.
The Foothill South would begin at Oso Parkway in Rancho Santa Margarita, pass through the state park north of the beach and connect with the 5 at Basilone Road south of San Clemente.
The proposed roadway will be considered for approval at the Coastal Commission meeting next month in San Diego. The commission and its staff regulate development along 1,100 miles of California coastline.
"This is very, very big for the toll road. The governor has been silent for so long, and now he's come out in support," said Thomas E. Margro, the TCA's chief executive. "We've all worked very hard and made sure everyone understood the issues. I think it took a while for all of that to work through."
Margro said he hoped the Coastal Commission would weigh the governor's support in addition to the merits of the agency's permit application.
In September, the commission's staff recommended against approval, saying a six-lane toll road through San Onofre would cause widespread violations of state environmental laws by threatening endangered species, marring natural resources and compromising recreational opportunities.
The 236-page analysis conflicts with assertions by the TCA that the proposed route for the Foothill South is the least harmful to the popular coastal park of eight options considered by the Irvine-based agency.
"It's difficult to imagine a more environmentally damaging alternative location," the commission's staff concluded.
The tollway also has been opposed by the State Park and Recreation Commission, which unanimously recommended in November 2005 that the governor oppose the project. The parks commission was chaired at the time by Bobby Shriver, Schwarzenegger's brother-in-law.
Elizabeth Goldstein, executive director of the California State Parks Foundation and an opponent of the toll road, said the governor's endorsement represented a threat to San Onofre and the independence of the Coastal Commission.
"It's important for the governor and his staff not to lobby the Coastal Commission, but this letter seems to imply that they are," said Goldstein, adding that Ronald Reagan helped create San Onofre State Beach in the early 1970s. "It's incomprehensible that Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to be remembered as the man who killed it."
But in his letter to the commission, the governor said he was convinced that with extensive mitigation measures proposed by the TCA, the project could be built in a way that minimized effects on the park's natural resources.
Schwarzenegger's support comes at a time when the state is facing a $14-billion budget gap. To deal with the problem, the governor has proposed 10% cuts across the board for state agencies and cutbacks and closures involving 48 parks.
Schwarzenegger noted that the Foothill South project was a public-private partnership that would rely on private capital, not state and federal funds, for construction.
He also mentioned that the TCA had offered $100 million to reduce the effect of the road on the park and provide improvements to San Onofre, San Clemente State Park and Crystal Cove State Park.
"The State Route 241 project gives us a chance to protect our parks and our coastline and reduce one of the most damaging environmental problems that plagues our state: traffic gridlock," Schwarzenegger said in his endorsement letter.