The U.S. Commerce secretary agreed Thursday with the state Coastal Commission’s rejection of the proposed Foothill South toll road that would have passed through south Orange County as well as a state park.
The decision means the $1.3 billion proposal to extend the 241 toll road is effectively dead for now, although the possibility of a legal challenge remains open.
“We popped some champagne,” said Mark Rauscher of the Surfrider Foundation in San Clemente, a leader of the opposition to the toll road proposal. “Very cool.”
A major issue in the toll road fight has been whether any reasonable alternative — such as widening the I-5 freeway — exists. The Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency argued that those options had been studied, and that the proposed route through San Onofre State Beach park was the best option.
The tollway builders also argued that the road was of national importance, and even in the interest of national security because improvements would be made around the Camp Pendleton Marine base.
The Commerce department found that at least one viable alternative existed — an 8.7 mile extension of 241 south from Oso Parkway to Avenida la Pata in San Clemente. The agency also found that the toll road “is not necessarily in the interest of national security.”
The agency can return to the Coastal Commission with another proposed toll road route, the Commerce department said, and it need not be the route identified by Commerce as a viable alternative.
Both sides said prior to the ruling that legal action was likely no matter who won. A spokeswoman said the toll road agency would have to analyze the Commerce department’s conclusions before deciding whether to take the matter to court.
The fight over the proposed toll road has raged for years; the tollway agency’s studies of the proposed route began 20 years ago.
Supporters said the road was needed to relieve future traffic congestion, and to complete the county’s network of toll roads. More recently, tollway agency officials said building the road would create 35,000 jobs.
Environmental activists, however, said the road would cause too much environmental harm. It would cut through San Onofre State Beach park, as well as through habitat for a variety of sensitive species, including the endangered Pacific pocket mouse.
Surfrider and other groups also contended that building the toll road could harm the famous surfing beach, Trestles, because of sediments washed downstream. The toll road agency said their studies showed just the opposite — that sediments would be tightly controlled, and there would be no effect on Trestles.
The conflict drew thousands to two hearings on the toll road proposal at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. The first, in February, ended in the toll road proposal’s defeat by the Coastal Commission.
The tollway agency appealed the ruling under the federal Coastal Zone Management Act, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a branch of Commerce, held a second hearing in September.
State Parks officials opposed the toll road, and state and federal legislators lined up on both sides.
The state Coastal Commission staff strongly opposed the proposal, saying it would violate the state Coastal Act and be too destructive of natural resources in a report recommending that the commission reject the project.
“We’re delighted, obviously,” said Coastal Commission executive director Peter Douglas. “And we’re really pleased that the secretary of Commerce agreed with the commission’s positions, both on procedural issues and the merits.”
Douglas — as well as other toll road opponents — said they were worried that because the decision was being made in the last days of the Bush Administration, it might be influenced by politics.
“When you look at the avalanche of last-minute decisions destructive of the environment that they’re trying to make on their way out, I was very concerned about that,” Douglas said.
But he and other opponents said the decision was made carefully on the merits of the case.
“It’s up to them,” he said. “I suppose they could seek judicial review if they want to waste more public resources, which they’ve done for the last 15 years of this project. I would hope they would see this as the need to redirect their resources and energy.”
Another opponent, Dan Silver of the Endangered Habitats League, said he, too, feels it is time to move on.
“I think it’s time for everyone to put this route through the park behind them, and focus upon constructive solutions that will address the transportation issues,” he said. (Read more responses on the decision)
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