Thursday, March 1, 2007
Longer haul for toll road
TCA says construction can't begin until 2011, citing time-consuming environmental approvals it needs.
By HEATHER IGNATIN and PAT BRENNAN
The Orange County Register
The Foothill South toll road faces such a dense thicket of environmental approvals that it will likely take until 2011 to begin construction, 2 1/2 years later than originally planned, the Transportation Corridor Agencies announced Wednesday.
"We've sat down and taken a hard look and realized we didn't have enough time to do these permits," said Jennifer Seaton, spokeswoman for the agencies. The cost of the $875 million road is expected to rise, although officials did not have any figures. Previously, TCA has said each month the project is delayed adds about $3 million to the price tag because of skyrocketing construction costs.
The proposed 16-mile toll road, which would form a last link in the county's network of toll roads, has provoked controversy and strong opposition among environmental activists and state parks officials.
It would bisect San Onofre State Park, cut through some of the last remaining habitat for endangered species such as the arroyo toad and the Pacific pocket mouse, and has prompted worry among surfers about potential effects on marine sediments.
The toll road agency says it must await a biological opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and obtain approval from a variety of other agencies, including the state Coastal Commission.
When toll road officials met with staff members from the Coastal Commission in December, the commission staff informally outlined a variety of concerns about the agencies' initial environmental impact report on the toll road, said Mark Delaplaine, a coastal analyst on the commission staff.
Among the concerns: whether the toll road agency had properly considered alternative routes; how the road would affect the habitat of tidewater gobies or migration routes for steelhead trout; and possible effects on the highly endangered Pacific pocket mouse, a species that could be near extinction. There are only a few small populations of the species left – at least two of them near the toll road route.
The commission staff is also worried about filling coastal wetlands in order to create pilings for the road near Interstate 5 – currently not an "allowable use" under the state Coastal Act, Delaplaine said.
The fact that the road would loom over the San Onofre State Park campground, as well as slicing through the middle of the park, also was a major concern, he said.
"The campground is a huge issue," he said. "It's almost unconscionable from our perspective – a highway that close to a campground valued mostly for its pristineness. We think it destroys (the park). It becomes unusable. You're not going to want to go there. It's such a breath of fresh air in Southern California; just a priceless resource."
Seaton said TCA will work to address all questions. "We are committed to answering all of the concerns the Commission may raise," she said.
A regional representative for the Sierra Club, which joined other activist groups and the state Parks Foundation in a lawsuit that seeks to block the project, said her group was eager to work with the toll road agency to find other solutions to transportation issues.
"We just feel the delay only confirms what we've been saying all along: The road is a bad idea," said Brittany McKee, an associate regional representative for the Sierra Club. "It costs too much, provides too little traffic relief, and there's too much harm to the environment."
TCA officials disagree.
"Is it OK to have only one route in and out of Orange County? We don't think so. This is a great project because of the traffic relief it will bring," Seaton said.
Length: 16 miles
Cost: More than $875 million (but expected to rise)
Construction time: 3 years (starts early 2011)
Cars handled per day: Up to 58,000 by 2025
Span: Rancho Santa Margarita to San Clemente
Number of lanes: 4 (two in each direction)
Before construction can begin, the toll road agency must obtain permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Fish and Game. The agency also must obtain approval from the California Coastal Commission. Here are some key dates.
Late March: Submission of required permitting documents to the state Coastal Commission
Late 2007: Preliminary design to finish; a coastal development permit from the Coastal Commission to be requested; appearance before the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board for state certification for water quality compliance.
2011: Construction could begin.
2014: Construction could end.