The U.S. Commerce Department came, it saw (or at least heard), and now it gets to decide whether to allow the Foothill South toll road to be built even though the project was rejected by the state.
The Bush administration has displayed a generally hostile attitude toward public parks and environmental protection. So let this serve as a reminder that federal officials are not supposed to act as a second Coastal Commission in deciding the merits or demerits of the Foothill South. Their role is to determine solely whether the road is in the national interest.
This one's easy. The Foothill South is a toll road to nowhere through San Onofre State Beach in northern San Diego County, a particularly popular state park that despite its name also includes a large portion of undeveloped inland canyon. The road would traverse the length of this rustic canyon and cut through a private nature preserve in south Orange County and an ancient Native American village that is still used for ceremonies. Because the toll would be costly and the road would divert commuters away from the employment centers to which they most commonly drive, its ability to substantially reduce traffic on a chronically congested section of Interstate 5 is questionable; on the toll road most similar to this project, the San Joaquin Hills, ridership remains low. What about this is in the national interest?
True, Interstate 5 is a key north-south artery for commuter and international freight traffic. But drivers would be better served by a direct route, widening the I-5 through San Clemente with toll lanes. Residents of the city understandably deplore the idea, but this freeway already has been successfully widened through most of the rest of Orange County.
Despite arguments by the Transportation Corridor Agencies, the toll road would serve no significant purpose for Camp Pendleton, nor is it likely to provide a life-saving escape in case of an accident at the San Onofre nuclear plant. The plant has operated for decades and is scheduled to go out of service in 2022, just nine years after the earliest anticipated opening date for the toll road. Besides, why would San Clemente residents drive south toward San Onofre in order to pick up a road to get away from it?
The proposed Foothill South toll road is a throwback to outdated models of growth that have locked this region into a pattern of killer commutes, reliance on foreign oil and the production of pollutants that foul air quality and contribute to global warming, at the expense of precious open spaces and endangered species. It serves neither the state nor the nation well.