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Ruling on OC toll road could come within days

December 9, 2008 |  2:14 pm

Environmentalists and transit planners are hoping for an early Christmas present, each hotly anticipating a decision from the U.S. Commerce Department on the fate of the proposed Foothill South toll road. The road would cut through part of San Onofre State Beach's parkland and a decision is scheduled by Jan. 5, but could come within days.

It's been a waiting game for both sides since a Sept. 22 hearing before Commerce officials in Del Mar on the controversial $1.3-billion, 16-mile road that would connect Rancho Santa Margarita in southern Orange County with Interstate 5 in northern San Diego County.

The California Coastal Commission voted earlier this year that the toll road violates the state's Coastal Act because of environmental damage the road would cause. The Transportation Corridor Agencies is appealing the decision to the Department of Commerce.

A quick recap of the years-long dispute: Toll road opponents, which include a number of environmental groups, have blasted the road as an unnecessary boondoggle that will destroy camping at San Onofre State Beach, home to a prime surf break, and hurt wetland species there. Toll road supporters say that the road will be environmentally sensitive, won't harm surfing and is needed to ease gridlock.

As for the timing of the decision, a Commerce Department spokesman was tight-lipped on the matter, declining to speculate on the decision-making process. The announcement will be one of Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez's  last before he leaves office with the Bush administration. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has been nominated to take over the Cabinet post. 

In the meantime, groups opposing the road aren't cheered by the Bush administration's push for changing environmental rules on issues ranging from oil development to endangered species protection. Environmental groups say those rules will weaken existing laws. In addition, officials with the Federal Highway Administration recently rejected toll road opponents' arguments that widening Interstate 5 is a better alternative to building the toll road.

What happens if the Commerce Department overturns the Coastal Commission?

Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas says that he doesn't expect that to happen because there's no basis in law for a reversal.

"Obviously we'll look at a decision and see what the basis was," Douglas said on Tuesday. "The secretary of Commerce can't just say, 'Gee, I like the toll road' or 'I think it's good for traffic relief.' There are criteria that have to be met. But if [a reversal] happens, we'll look at our options. We will not shy away from seeking judicial review of the decision."

Douglas also said that the TCA, which wants to build the road, still must get a permit from the commission to construct the project.

Lisa Telles, a spokeswoman for the TCA, said the agency may also choose to sue if the decision doesn't go its way. "We're going to wait and see what the decision says," Telles said today, adding, "One thing we know that hasn't changed is the need for transportation improvements in south Orange County won't go away."

In other words, however the Commerce Department rules, the dispute is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

--Susannah Rosenblatt and Steve Hymon