Road to Nowhere Fast

The only good toll road is a dead toll road, and the Foothill-South toll road is as good as dead. The Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) announced on Feb. 28 that the project will be put off at least two and a half years, until 2011, "since the permitting process is very complicated and will take longer than expected."

Longer than expected? How can that be?

Since 1996, the TCA has been working with the Federal Highway Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Caltrans to make the toll road a reality. No wonder, in early 2006, TCA board member Jim Dahl called the project "the most studied road . . . in the state of California, and probably in the nation."

And now, 11 years in, we're supposed to believe they're still fumbling with the paperwork?

Yes, there are huge political and environmental hurdles to scale. The Foothill-South toll road extension, as proposed, would cross through the Donna O'Neill Land Conservancy, bisect the inland portion of San Onofre State Beach, disturb a Juaneno Indian burial ground and quite possibly muck with the world-class surf at Trestles Beach.

But, come on, the TCA knew that 11 years ago, and yet they are just now blaming "the permitting process" for essentially throwing nails in the road.

"They seem to have come to the realization that [the permitting process] will take more time than they thought," California Coastal Commission analyst Mark DeLaplaine told the Weekly. "Permits mean opportunities for lawsuits, and people have said they're willing to litigate this any time there's an opportunity. Maybe that explains the delays."

Actually, according to the TCA's press release, what is happening is not a "delay" but an "update." Um . . . okay.

Whatever terminology the quasi-public agency wants to use, it's worth nothing that, according to its own figures, every month the project is delayed, it costs an additional $3 million. Thus, the conservative two-and-a-half-year delay, er, update translates to $90 million down the rat hole. That fast tracks the total price tag toward $900 million. Is the TCA claiming that doling out 90 large is less expensive than being dragged to court to fight every permit they must seek?

Apparently. Jennifer Seaton, the TCA spokeswoman, says her agency is looking ahead to potential issues with the Coastal Commission while waiting in vain for their permit from U.S. Fish and Wildlife, which they applied for in 2005.

"We've been waiting, and there isn't a deadline they can give us or a date," says Seaton.

And this wasn't anticipated when dreaming up the most studied road in the history of forever, a road that has been in South County developers' wet dreams since the 1980s?

"We've just realized that each agency involved needs a certain amount of time to review the project, and we want to get it done right," says Seaton.

So they've been going at it all wrong all these years?

Seaton wouldn't bite.

"We just want to be realistic and conservative in the public timeline," she says.

How's this for timelines: If I entered law school in the fall, focused on environmental law, graduated in three years and got a job at a firm like Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger—the one fighting this toll road for environmental groups—then I could still have time to help stop the project before they ever break ground or pour a drop of concrete.

Upon hearing the news of the toll-road delay, the mood of environmentalists and surfers could be described as "up" with great risk of understatement.

"The delay just illustrates that the toll road is a bad idea," says Brittany McKee of Friends of the Foothills, a Sierra Club-run anti-Foothill South coalition. "It costs too much to build, won't solve Orange County's traffic problems, and does too much environmental harm."

Meanwhile, the Surfrider Foundation is so emboldened by the stoppage that it has put up a job posting on Craigslist for a Save Trestles campaign coordinator. The San Clemente-based clean-water advocates also issued a celebratory email blast that asks, "Which is more likely . . . the TCA winning approval for the 241 Toll Road anytime before 2020 or Guns N' Roses actually deciding to release Chinese Democracy?"

The TCA would be wise to put its dwindling reserves on Axl.


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