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Out of Ideas, the Orange County Transportation Corridor Agencies Propose the Same Illegal Toll Road Again -- In Pieces

Joel Reynolds

Posted October 6, 2011 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment, Living Sustainably, Moving Beyond Oil, Saving Wildlife and Wild Places, Solving Global Warming

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Remember the Foothill South toll road?  The one proposed by the Orange County Transportation Corridor Agencies (“TCA”) that would eviscerate the California State Park at San Onofre State Beach,  one of the most popular state parks in California? The illegal one rejected three years ago by the California Coastal Commission, which found that “it would be difficult to imagine a more damaging alternative location for the proposed toll road”?  The one again rejected later that same year by the Commerce Department of the George W. Bush Administration?

If you thought it was dead, think again.

Yesterday, the TCA’s Finance and Operations Committee approved a “new” TCA staff proposal.  And that new proposal is . . . exactly the same as the old proposed toll road – except now the TCA wants to permit and build it in pieces!

After three years promising to find an alternative with a realistic chance of approval and, ultimately, of addressing traffic congestion in southern Orange County, the TCA is proposing instead to build four miles of the same rejected alignment – from Oso Parkway south to just north of Ortega Highway while continuing to defer any decision on how that segment will ultimately reach its intended terminus at the I-5.

Unfortunately, rather than cure the violations of law originally identified by state and federal regulatory agencies, the latest proposal compounds them by “segmenting” the project in order to avoid consideration of the devastating environmental impacts that doomed the full alignment project three years ago.  Instead of eliminating or mitigating those impacts, the TCA yesterday proposed that regulatory agencies ignore them and focus instead only on four miles of the 16 mile right-of-way, leaving for a later day – after the four miles have been built – any regulatory review of the full project alignment. 

Under a long line of state and federal legal precedent, this approach constitutes an illegal segmentation of the project.  It is illegal precisely because this kind of segmentation has the inevitable effect of prejudicing any later consideration of additional segments. 

And this violation is in no way mitigated by the TCA’s claim that it hasn’t yet decided on where the alignment will run from Ortega Highway to the I-5.  If you believe that, I have a blow-out preventer from the Gulf of Mexico that I’d like to sell you.  

To make matters worse, the TCA intends to fund this latest scheme through tolls based on an astonishing prediction of 41,000 average daily trips along the four-mile segment in the year 2035.  What the factual basis may be for this estimate along this single section is uncertain – the TCA hasn’t said – but it may have more to do with the amount the TCA’s bankers estimate would be required to green light construction than the amount reasonably expected in actual ridership. 

One immediate consequence of this latest illegal TCA proposal will be renewed opposition from the broad coalition of interests that defeated the toll road in 2008. As far as the TCA is concerned, the last three years back at the drawing board have generated no discernable progress in its conception of the project.  Now hotly contested and costly administrative proceedings and, ultimately, litigation against the project will begin again and continue for as long as it takes to defeat the TCA’s latest run at this failed project – a project that should have been retired years ago in favor of 21st Century traffic management solutions whose purpose is moving people and relieving congestion rather than building a needlessly destructive toll road to perpetuate the TCA’s own survival.

Without any real expectation that the full TCA board will listen to reason when it votes on October 13, we nevertheless strongly urge them to reject this latest act of desperation by its staff to salvage an illegal project definitively put to rest three years ago.

       

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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