It's deja vu all over again, as slick campaigns are being foisted on the public to win support for extending the 241 toll road until it connects with the chronically clogged 5 freeway in South Orange County—with strong opposition brewing to the proposals.
You are right, sir: The Transportation Corridor Agency—a.k.a. TCA or The Toll Roads—did settle five outstanding lawsuits in November by establishing a $28 million conservation fund to help preserve and restore San Mateo Creek and its watershed and agreeing not to carve a road into San Onofre State Beach, the Richard and Donna O’Neill Conservancy nor other critical open space, wildlife habitat and cultural resources in the San Mateo Creek watersheds.
The TCA's previous preferred route for extending the 241 toll road ran into opposition from the Sierra Club, the Surfrider Foundation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Native American Heritage Commission, various OC elected officials, scores of residents from Orange and San Diego counties and the California Coastal Commission. All was lost on Dec. 18, 2008, when the U.S. Department of Commerce, then under George W. Bush, announced it would uphold an earlier Coastal Commission ruling that found the route conflicted with the California Coastal Act.
But that experience and the court settlement that followed have not quelled the TCA's desire to extend the 241, which on its northern end starts between Tustin and Irvine Lake and, heading south, dead ends at Oso Parkway near Rancho Santa Margarita. Here is why, as explained on the Toll Roads' website's Long-Range Planning page:
Traffic on I-5 in South Orange County is now more congested than ever — especially on weekends — and is anticipated to get worse. And because there is currently no major alternative route to I-5, whenever traffic is severely congested due to weekend or holiday traffic or if there is an incident or construction on I-5, traffic spills onto the local streets of San Clemente, Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano completely clogging local roadways in these cities as drivers try to find a way around the gridlock.
Twenty-four million people live in Southern California today. That number will be more than 30 million by 2050, resulting in a 60 percent increase in traffic on I-5 in South Orange County.
To keep the 241 continuing southwest before merging with the 5—while avoiding San Onofre State Beach, the O’Neill Conservancy and San Mateo Creek habitat and resources—the TCA has come up with three proposed routes the end on or near Avenida Vaquero, Avenida Pico and San Juan Creek Road, all in San Clemente.
But the San Clemente City Council and a growing number of its constituents oppose these proposals. The council voted 5-0 on March 21 to advocate to the TCA a previously abandoned route that would connect the 241 with the 73 toll road that runs from near Mission Viejo to Irvine before becoming a freeway that connects with the 405 freeway in Costa Mesa.
A previous TCA analysis found the 241-73 plan would be costly, draw opposition, require eminent domain, be difficult to get permitted and only moderately relieve north-south traffic. But San Clemente officials argue that another study found merging the two toll roads would have significant benefits.
The council received public support at its April 4 meeting, when resident Eva O'Keefe praised the elected leaders for taking its stand.
"At the last City Council meeting you made it loud and clear you are against the toll road," she said during public comments. "What is the message from San Clemente? HELL NO!"
In a later email to the Weekly, O'Keefe fretted about nice San Clemente homes and neighborhoods having to be condemned to make way for a toll road.
"This is outrageous," she wrote, "and why should we give one more dollar to the TCA, so they can transport rich COTO de CAZA residents to the beach? Residents will pay $15 for a RT. There are NO centers of employment in San Clemente, so this road is nothing more than a vanity road."
O'Keefe also worried about a toll road passing closely by Marblehead and Vista del Mar elementary schools and San Clemente and San Juan Hills high schools. That's a concern that was also raised by Dustine Rey, when the owner of Gratitude Garden Preschool addressed the council with her young daughter at her side.
"There is a well documented danger of having children in schools next to freeways," Rey said. "In 2003, a law was passed stating no new school can be built next to a freeway. So, I am perplexed as a mom—and I know all the children are perplexed—why a developer would be allowed to come in and build a freeway next to their school."
She explained she was specifically talking about Marblehead Elementary, "which would be close enough that micoparticles would be breathed in by childs’ lungs." The Marblehead neighborhood resident added, "I’m deeply concerned about the health of my little girl."
Rey ended her time at the podium by asking what average citizens can do about this. Councilwoman Lori Donchak advised her to get her homeowner association involved, explaining HOAs can be powerful voices of opposition (as anyone who has tried to hang a basketball backboard over a garage within one knows).
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Councilman Steven Swartz extended an invitation for toll-road opposition beyond HOAs. "As a city we are looking to fighting as much as we can," he said. "Any other groups that want to add on to the fight are welcome to because what is proposed is not acceptable, and I think we need to speak loud and often."
Three days after leading that council meeting, Mayor Kathy Ward brought up the toll road challenge during her San Clemente Chamber of Commerce-sponsored State of the City address at Bella Collina Towne & Golf Club.
“This is a very serious issue for our city,” Ward said. “This extension would destroy our city. The answer to a toll road in San Clemente has to be unequivocally no.”
To its credit, the TCA has learned since its bruising (and losing) fight over trying to cut the 241 into a California state park that it must get the public and Surfrider more engaged early to find common ground and, ultimately, a winning plan.
“Through a very deliberate public engagement process, we have hosted two public forums and solicited the community for input to establish their priorities and identify community-based solutions that will provide much needed traffic relief on our roads and freeways,” says Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who is vice chairwoman of the Foothill/Eastern TCA, in a Toll Roads statement.
The TCA fully explains the public engagement strategies on GetMovingOC.com, where there are recaps of the previous public forums Bartlett mentioned. Those interested can email email@example.com to get updates about the 241 sent to their inboxes.
Mike Chesney, the TCA's chief strategy officer, has said that his agency welcomes all ideas and intends to vet them through the environmental process. He claims it is too early for the TCA to have settled on a preferred route—even one that would end in San Clemente.