A possible new route for the Foothill South toll road through part of Camp Pendleton has been rejected by the Navy, sending Orange County’s tollway agency back to the drawing board to try to complete its toll road network.
The Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency began working on the new proposed route after state and federal officials rejected its previous proposal in 2008.
That road would have cut through San Onofre State Park, igniting fierce opposition from State Parks officials and conservationists.
The new proposal gets around that problem in a novel way: by changing the boundaries of the park itself. The new road would shift the northeastern park boundary to the west to make room for the toll road, then add acreage to the park’s southern section — overall, a net gain of about 14 acres for the park, which is leased to the state by the Navy.
“The lease has been modified numerous times,” said the toll road agency’s engineering manager, Paul Bopp, including in 1977 and 1985. “Ultimately, that’s how we get out of the state park.”
On Friday, however, the tollway agency released a copy of a Feb. 22 letter from Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., rejecting the plan.
“Based upon the thorough review and the fact that Camp Pendleton training is already constrained by environmental and other restrictions, I have determined that the proposed new TCA route would unacceptably impact the Marine Corps’ ability to train and prepare for all contingency operations,” Mabus wrote.
The affected land, known as the Sierra Training Area, is used for improvised explosive device training, field operations and land navigation, he wrote; future uses could include training with heavy equipment and convoy operations.
Tollway agency officials said Friday they view the letter as an opening to discussions with the military about a possible Pendleton route, not a final rejection.
“It was designed as a talking point, a concept,” agency chairman Peter Herzog said of the new proposal. “Quite frankly this letter provides us with what we’ve been asking for. Now we look forward to getting the engineers down to work to look into those issues.”
He said the tollway agency would continue talking to the military and try to modify the proposal to meet their concerns. Other possible routes that don’t go through Camp Pendleton might also one day be considered, he said.
The tollway agency’s plan includes construction of a wall along the route as it passes through Pendleton, so that Marines could train on the site without being visible to motorists.
It is one of a series of intricate modifications to the road devised by toll road engineers to overcome the objections of a variety of groups.
Shifting the park boundaries, for example, is meant to eliminate objections to cutting through a state park. The engineers also propose linking to I-5 via tunnel to give the freeway connection a low profile, eliminating worries that an unsightly ramp might be visible from nearby beaches.
To forestall complaints about intrusion on the view from the San Onofre State Beach park campground, the engineers proposed changes they say might enhance the camping experience.
First, the 358-acre section added to the southern part of the park would include an area that is now off-limits to park visitors. Instead, they could hike through the area, a dry creek bed and former farmland.
And a berm along the toll road topped with native trees and other vegetation would screen the tollway from view by campers. Because of the trees, and because the proposed route was on the far side of the creek bed, it also would likely be inaudible from the campground, Bopp said.
“The trees on the roadway embankment would take care of the noise and the visual impact,” he said.
The agency even proposes placing power lines underground in the Pendleton training area to remove large transmission towers, improving the site’s safety and increasing acreage for training.
The new route still has a few difficulties as it cuts through wildland farther inland to connect to the existing 241 toll road, which ends at Oso Parkway. The agency’s suggested route would still cut through the Donna O’Neill Land Conservancy, likely rousing objections from habitat conservation groups.
The route also would pass close to sensitive breeding habitat for the endangered arroyo toad, though Bopp said the proposed route is far enough away to avoid disrupting the toad’s territory.
The original route for the Foothill South toll road was killed by the State Coastal Commission in February 2008 after throngs of protesters made their objections known at a commission meeting in Del Mar.
The opposition was led in large part by the Surfrider Foundation. Their studies suggested construction of the road could wash sediment downstream, possibly harming surfing conditions at the famed Trestles beach, although the tollway agency’s own studies showed the opposite: no effect whatever on Trestles.
The agency appealed the Coastal Commission’s decision to the U.S. Commerce secretary, who declined to overrule the commission’s decision in December 2008.
Since then, tollway officials have held some 125 meetings with community groups about creating an alternate route, including environmental activists and other opponents.
The tollway agency says Foothill South is needed to avoid future traffic congestion along I-5 in south Orange County.
“We still have a traffic problem in Orange County,” Bopp said. “The Secretary of Commerce decision has not made that go away.”