One of the worst possible reasons for not holding a public hearing is that too many people are passionately interested in the outcome. Yet that's precisely the illogic contained in a U.S. Department of Commerce letter indicating that the agency might cancel its hearing on the proposed Foothill South toll road after learning that perhaps 10,000 people want to attend.
The department is considering an appeal on the toll road, which the California Coastal Commission rejected as environmentally unacceptable. But after committing to a public hearing, it now faces a quandary: Far more people have expressed interest in attending -- probably to oppose the project -- than the venue at UC Irvine can hold. The department is weighing its options, the letter says, including canceling the July 25 hearing. And though it doesn't rule out a new date, it also complains that "the cost of a larger facility and increased security would exceed our current budget."
That has to be a joke. Since when is there a budget cap on providing public access?
The Commerce Department has a great obligation here -- all the greater because of the intensity of public concern -- and it should be taking whatever steps are necessary to ensure a full, open hearing. If that requires a bigger venue, such as the county fairgrounds in Del Mar that the Coastal Commission used (and was somehow able to afford), so be it. If it means holding several hearings so that all have a chance to attend, that's fine too. We hope the department's apparent reluctance doesn't stem from the Transportation Corridor Agencies' complaints about the Coastal Commission hearing, which also drew thousands of boisterous opponents. Toll road supporters stand to benefit if the size and vehemence of the opposition is kept out of sight.
This page has consistently opposed the Foothill South toll road. It would all but ruin San Onofre State Beach, cut through a nature preserve, add to the miles commuters drive to reach their destinations and encourage sprawl. A hearing is the place for decision makers to hear these arguments and those of supporters, who justifiably complain about the traffic bottleneck along Interstate 5 in San Clemente.
At this point, the Commerce Department has to come up with a new hearing date. Even if it could find another venue before July 25, there would be too little time for public notice. But it must stick with its own commitment to hold a hearing on a matter that affects so many people.