The Echo Chamber
Say you will build it, and they will come—if the ‘it’ is a toll road over parkland

 

As if they had happened upon a large chunk of donkey dung, five horseflies scampered across the press table inside sweltering O’Brien Hall at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. Fitting.

The only thing that didn’t stink for the ink-stained wretches covering this wretched circus was the wan joy of witnessing so many public displays of incongruity. More on that in a bit. First, the poop:

Jane C. Luxton, general counsel of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), collected testimony from some of the 6,000 or so present as part of the Transportation Corridor Agencies’ (TCA) appeal of the California Coastal Commission’s February decision against the TCA’s preferred route for the 241 toll-road extension, which would cut through San Onofre State Park in South Orange County, Donna O’Neill Conservancy in San Juan Capistrano and Camp Pendleton in San Diego County. Foes also contend runoff from the $1.3 billion project would sully the pristine waters of the world-class surf breaks at Trestles.

“This is democracy at work,” Ignacio Ochoa, a toll-road-supporting chief engineer with Orange County Public Works, said of the proceedings.

If so, democracy was falsely advertised. The NOAA swore going in that the order of speakers was not pre-determined, but the actual lineup was front-loaded with elected officials—everyone from Democratic state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, an extension foe, to the state Senate’s outgoing Republican leader Dick Ackerman (R-Fullerton), a toll-road backer.

The NOAA, which has jurisdiction because the project falls within a state-federal partnership known as the Coastal Zone Management Act, also said the TCA would be limited to one representative. But besides TCA Chief Executive Officer Art Leahy, 15 of his board members trotted up to lobby for the extension—in their capacities as mayors and city council members.

Luxton, flanked by two stone-faced bureaucrats on the dais, said all testimony would be weighed equally, and she reiterated written testimony is being accepted through Oct. 2. She was not there to make a decision, that honor going to her boss, Republican Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who has a Jan. 7, 2009, deadline.

The jury’s still out when it comes to the court of public opinion. The vast majority of mainstream media was only present for the morning session dominated by politicians in favor of the TCA’s proposed route for connecting Rancho Santa Margarita with Interstate 5 in San Diego County. Anti-extension testimony did filter in from lefties such as Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, San Diego City Councilwoman Donna Frye and Santa Monica City Councilman Bobby Shriver, whose toll-road opposition spurred brother-in-law Arnold Schwarzenegger to fire him and Clint Eastwood from the California Parks Commission.

Entrenched Orange County Republican officeholders such as Assemblywoman Mimi Walters (R-Laguna Hills) and county Supervisors Bill Campbell and Patricia Bates dutifully carried the TCA’s water.

Heading away from the podium amid loud boos and shouts of “Vote her out” and “She’s paid for by contractors,” Walters paused briefly to pay her respects to Ackerman, who is termed out of the 33rd District Senate seat she now seeks.

“I only stayed to hear you,” Ackerman whispered in her ear.

“I’m sorry I can’t stay,” Walters said, hightailing it out of there.

Luxton was reduced several times to admonishing the crowd to stop applauding, booing or hissing speakers, who each got four minutes if they had titles, three if they were average Joes. To boil all 10 hours down, nearly every “pro” speech mentioned TCA polls that show the public overwhelmingly favors the extension. “Anti” speakers uniformly countered that when opposition pollsters mentioned the road would cut through a state park, respondents overwhelmingly opposed the extension.

Pro: This route makes the most economic sense. Anti: There are less-damaging alternatives.

Pro: It will relieve traffic that is scheduled to increase 60 percent by 2025. Anti: Widen I-5 instead.

Pro: It’ll cost $2.5 billion California does not have to widen the freeway. Anti: It’s time to move beyond oil-economy solutions.

Then came an argument for federalism: The pro side claimed it is in the national interest to have a federal department overrule a state commission. Antis countered that would set an ugly precedent, this is a local project, and it is not in the national interest to pave over a park, a nature preserve and a military base.

Welcome to Bizarro World. National parks champion Teddy Roosevelt’s name was raised in arguments for the toll road. Capitalism champions Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were cited by foes. Letters from Camp Pendleton Marine officials for and against the project were cited. Members of the same city councils took opposing sides. Tony Moiso of the Rancho Mission Viejo land-owning family spoke for the extension, but Richard O’Neill, a member of the same family, is against it.

Caltrans was accused of having no credibility. As was Surfrider. And the TCA. You’re out of order—you’re all out of order.

Both pros and cons called it “the road to nowhere.” Take that, Sarah Palin. Build-it slicksters claimed the project reduces our carbon footprint. Take that, Al Gore.

When labor leaders were spotted high-fiving Orange County Republican politicians, you knew you’d seen everything.

Amplifying the bassackwardness of it all was the actual echo inside O’Brien Hall. It was like listening to Charlie Brown’s teacher recite Lou Gehrig’s luckiest man speech from inside Get Smart’s Cone of Silence. The best place to hear speakers echo-free was outside by the overpriced-food stands.

By 12:12 p.m., with eight and a quarter loooong hours to go, Luxton looked like she wanted to be anywhere else. Welcome to the club.

Encinitas resident Marco Gonzalez of the Coast Law Group put it best: “It takes an extraordinarily bad project to bring people together like this.”

 

Check out the open-air party scene at "The Circus Outside the Toll Road
Circus Inside
" on our Navel Gazing blog. 

 

mcoker@ocweekly.com

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