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The issues behind O.C.'s toll road plan

November 17, 2008|Susannah Rosenblatt

The contentious proposal to extend a toll road 16 miles, part of that through San Onofre State Beach in northern San Diego County, has been moving slowly through the bureaucratic process for decades. The $1.3-billion road is intended to connect Rancho Santa Margarita in southern Orange County with Interstate 5 at Basilone Road just south of San Clemente.

The U.S. Department of Commerce is now considering whether to override the state Coastal Commission's rejection of the project this year. Summarized below are key aspects of the dispute.

-- Susannah Rosenblatt



The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a biological opinion in April, which concluded that although alternative routes would have a lesser effect, the road would be "not likely to jeopardize the continued existence" of at-risk species in the 2,107-acre state park. A coalition of environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit in August alleging that the agency's opinion was flawed.

* Pro-road: Supporters say mitigation measures such as preserved and re-created habitat, wildlife crossings and scientific monitoring would help protect nine federally endangered or threatened species in the area. They point out that trestles and Interstate 5 already cross the San Mateo Creek watershed.

* Anti-road: Many conservationists consider San Onofre State Beach part of one of the last pristine watersheds in Southern California and say an extension of California 241 would encroach on critical habitat and put other state parks at risk.



Cobbles on the seafloor help create the unique waves that make the Trestles surf break famous. Both sides have commissioned hydrology studies to bolster their arguments.

* Pro-road: Supporters, who say their studies are more extensive, point out that the Foothill South would be half a mile from the beach and would not alter surfing conditions.

* Anti-road: Opponents say sediment caused by runoff and construction grading would flow into San Mateo Creek, potentially altering the natural movement of cobbles to the ocean and ruining the waves.



With 2.8 million visitors last year, San Onofre State Beach was the fourth-most visited in California. The inland San Mateo campground was created as mitigation for the nearby San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. The toll road and right of way would take up 320 acres, or 27% of the inland portion of the park. Supporters say no campsites would be destroyed, but in a 2004 letter, parks Director Ruth Coleman said the road would render the campground and nature trails "unusable." The department's current position on the matter is neutral." The California State Parks Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group, and the state parks commission oppose the road.

* Pro-road: Supporters say only 5% of the park's visitors use the inland campground, which is adjacent to power lines. The toll road would be 385 feet from the nearest campsite, farther than campsites in a different part of the park are from Interstate 5.

* Anti-road: Opponents say the planned six-lane turnpike is much larger than an existing two-lane access road, and a 16-foot sound wall intended to block traffic noise would impair the rustic atmosphere. The toll road, opponents say, would ruin the campground.


Native Americans

Former Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer filed a lawsuit in 2006 with the support of the state Native American Heritage Commission to block the road, which would cut through Panhe, a sacred ceremonial site. One of four tribal factions agreed to settle with the Transportation Corridor Agencies.

* Pro-road: The toll road agency says it has been working with Orange County tribes for more than a decade to try to avoid sacred areas. The agency says federal law offers better protection for cultural resources than state law.

* Anti-road: Native American groups and their supporters lament the potential loss of Panhe.



The Federal Highway Administration endorsed the proposed route, which was selected by Caltrans, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency and other state and federal agencies. The turnpike would be an alternative to Interstate 5 in southern Orange County. Daily car trips are expected to grow 60% within two decades. The California Department of Transportation signed a non-compete agreement with the toll road agency in 1993 that bars Caltrans from making major road improvements within five miles of either side of the toll road, with some exemptions for safety and other requirements. The agreement expires in 2020.

* Pro-road: Supporters estimate that without the toll road extension, travel times on Interstate 5 between Mission Viejo and San Diego County will worsen. The road, they say, is a vital link in a regional transportation plan and has been on the books since 1981. Widening Interstate 5, they say, would mean razing 1,200 homes and businesses.

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