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Road to ruin

No matter what the governor says, the Foothill South tollway would be an environmental disaster.

January 29, 2008

Maybe Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was trying to make up for planned cuts to state parks. Otherwise, it's hard to imagine what could have led to his recent support for the Foothill South toll road.

In announcing his change from neutral on the highway that's proposed to take traffic pressure off Interstate 5 in San Clemente, the governor said the project was "essential to protect our environment" and could be built in a manner "that will enhance and foster use of the coast." This is environmental doublespeak. As planned, the toll road would cut through a wilderness preserve in eastern Orange County and then traverse the length of a narrow, pristine canyon that makes up most of San Onofre State Beach, one of the most popular California state parks. The government Schwarzenegger heads is suing to stop the project.

Perhaps the $100 million offered by the Transportation Corridor Agencies as environmental mitigation -- to be used for improvements in other state parks -- enticed the governor at this vulnerable moment when he's proposing to close 48 parks temporarily as a budget fix. But the mitigation money could not begin to make up for the damage the road would cause. It wouldn't buy more parkland. What makes all this especially paradoxical is that the wilderness preserve and the campgrounds at San Onofre were themselves created as mitigation measures for other developments.

Both metaphorically and geographically, the Foothill South tollway would lead the state down a bad route. As proposed, it would go where few are interested in heading -- eastern Orange County. Commuters on the I-5 are generally headed toward the central county; the toll road agency is betting that to beat the traffic, motorists will pay a substantial toll to drive out of their way, a strategy that has failed before.

The best that can be said is that the toll road agency worked hard to find the most environmentally acceptable route among an environmentally unacceptable set of options. It doesn't have to end there, though. Agency officials have been loath to consider widening the I-5 with toll lanes through the congested area. This would be considerably more expensive and involves eminent domain proceedings. But toll lanes along existing freeways have proved popular. And eminent domain was used successfully to widen the I-5 through central and northern Orange County. When the California Coastal Commission meets Feb. 6 to consider the Foothill South proposal, it should disregard the governor's attempt to make environmental degradation sound good and insist on a better path.

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