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O.C. tollway cancels studies for controversial extension

After years of contentious debate, a long-running and sharply criticized plan to extend Orange County's toll road network to the San Diego County line has been shelved.

The extension would have added miles to the county's maze of tollways but also would have cut — in the view of some — perilously close to San Onofre State Beach and one of the state's most treasured surf breaks.

On Tuesday, officials with the Transportation Corridor Agencies announced they had canceled environmental studies for the massive 241 extension and said they would pursue less-ambitious alternatives.

The Transportation Corridor Agencies planned to build the Foothill South through the eastern portion of popular San Onofre State Beach, which is dotted with campgrounds and popular surf spots such as Trestles. The proposal generated loud opposition from environmentalists, park supporters and surfers.

Both the Coastal Commission and the U.S. Department of Commerce rejected the project, though it's been assumed that toll road officials could revive it at some point.

Lisa Telles, a Transportation Corridor Agency spokeswoman, said draft environmental impact statements were prepared for the Foothill South but never finalized. If the project is resurrected with a revised route, she added, new environmental impact statements would be required.

"This was an administrative action," Telles said. "It was the right thing to close out the matter."

Tollway officials said they would now concentrate on building the so-called Tesoro extension, which would lengthen the 241 by almost six miles. The route would run from Oso Parkway near Coto de Caza to Cow Camp Road near San Juan Capistrano.

Planners say the road would provide access to the north for communities linland of the 5 Freeway and for motorists traveling to Orange County from the Inland Empire via Ortega Highway, which crosses the Santa Ana Mountains.

But environmentalists are worried that the Tesoro proposal is just a foot in the door to eventually revive the full extension. They have proposed non-tollway alternatives.

The Tesoro "has no independent utility and no other purpose except as part of a larger project," said Dan Silver, executive director of the Endangered Habitats League.

The TCA is now finalizing the Tesoro's environmental studies, which will clear the way to secure permits for construction.

If the project is built, it will add to the 51 miles of toll roads now operated by the TCA. They include State Routes 73, 241 and 261, as well as a portion of the 133.

dan.weikel@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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