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Highway 252 Corridor Issue Resurfaces; State Sets Hearing

Times Staff Writer

Just when city officials and Southeast San Diego residents thought that the disputed California 252 project was a dead matter, they discovered that it was only sleeping.

After more than a year of governmental inaction, last week the San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted to support the highway project, which community leaders see as anathema.

Next Thursday, the California Transportation Commission will hold a public hearing in Ontario--more than 100 miles from San Diego--to determine whether the state should retain the right-of-way to the proposed Highway 252 corridor or sell the land to the city for a redevelopment project strongly supported by the community. Unfortunately for freeway opponents, the distance means that hardly anyone from Southeast will be there to voice their opinion at the first state hearing on the matter in eight years, community leaders say.

One person who does plan to go is the Rev. Robert Ard, a freeway opponent who is also running for the Assembly seat representing the area. Ard, a Republican, plans to ask the state to sell the right-of-way for future community use. If that doesn’t happen, Ard wants the hearing postponed until August, when it can be held in San Diego, well within reach of Southeast residents.

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Joseph Levy, commission chairman, sees no way that the hearing can be postponed or relocated.

Still, he insisted: “We as a commission are not going to shove anything down anyone’s throat. Everybody’ll have their say.

“I think this is something that has to have a full hearing before anything is done.”

This is one of the few things that Ard and Levy agree on.

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“We don’t want to wait until April 24 and go to Ontario just to listen to people who’ve never even seen this land make a decision about what’s going to happen. . . . If the state is so right in their cause, why don’t they give the people a chance to express their views?” Ard said.

The differing opinions spring from a tug-of-war between National City and Southeast residents over the proposed construction of Highway 252, a 1.2-mile, six-lane route that would cut an east-to-west roadway through the heart of the Southeast neighborhood between 43rd Street and the Interstate 15 connector.

The struggle, which has continued for more than a decade, pits National City’s increasing traffic congestion and pro-freeway attitude against the redevelopment efforts of city officials and Southeast community activists who believe that the neighborhood is already laced with freeways, and that new businesses and jobs, not freeways, are what the neighborhood needs.

Freeway opponents point out that, because the state acknowledges that there will be no money available to build the freeway for nearly 10 years, the land could lie fallow for more than a decade. They also point out that the project could be locked in jurisdictional problems for years. To build the freeway, the state would have to enter into a new agreement with the city, which is adamantly opposed to the project.

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Freeway supporters contend that, money or no money, the corridor must remain available for the freeway. Otherwise, traffic congestion may get out of hand.

“It’s a much bigger problem than is being realized,” Levy said.

Levy said that Interstate 805 handles about 200,000 vehicles daily. That volume must be cut by at least 30,000 cars, he said. The only alternative to building Highway 252 would be to widen I-805, but there isn’t enough money for that, he said.

In 1980, after National City lost a suit to force Caltrans to approve the route, it appeared that Highway 252 was dead. Four years later, the city issued a preliminary draft plan calling for housing, stores and light industry to be built in the vacant corridor.

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Now, however, the freeway issue has been resurrected. If Ard and other community activists are unsuccessful at next Thursday’s hearing before the State Transportation Commission, the fight will continue until either the city reverses its current stance and agrees to enter into a new agreement with the state or until the commission once again considers selling the corridor to the city.

Meanwhile, on April 8, the county Board of Supervisors, in a 3-2 vote, joined the state in favor of building the freeway.

Interstates 5, 15 and 805 and California 94 already cut through Southeast San Diego. Freeway opponents are convinced that one more freeway may be the killing blow to a community that has no shopping centers and no major grocery stores.

One thing that concerns Supervisor Leon Williams, a freeway opponent, is that Highway 252 may not be the safety valve that its supporters claim it is.

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“The only thing it can possibly do is take you from 805 to 5, which would probably be crowded anyway. . . . In no case does it take you to a destination,” said Williams, who before his election to the Board of Supervisors represented the area on the San Diego City Council. Williams said that for the state to hold onto the right-of-way would be “insensitive.”

Supervisor Brian Bilbray, who voted for the freeway, says that retaining the right-of-way is necessary to relieve traffic congestion. To Bilbray, freeways are not responsible for Southeast’s problems.

“To blame it on the freeways is a cop-out. . . . If it’s (acquiring property for redevelopment) so important, they should go get the property themselves,” he said.

The bottom line, Bilbray said, is that “regional transportation should not be subservient to local development.”

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County Supervisor George Bailey said he supports construction of the freeway for fiscal reasons. The state spent a total of $11 million on the corridor, including moving compensation for people who lost their homes and the cost for bulldozing those homes. The city is offering to pay the fair market appraisal value of $2.9 million to purchase the land.

“That is a waste of public funds,” he said.

“I think they (the city) have reacted too much to local pressure . . . I’m aware there is a minority community down there and I know they’re up in arms, but two wrongs don’t make a right,” he said.

Bailey acknowledged that building a freeway through Southeast might be unfortunate for the residents, but he doesn’t believe that scrapping the freeway is the solution.

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“I think there is room for compromise here,” he said.

Bailey asserted that it was possible to have either a freeway or a road going through the corridor without disrupting redevelopment for the area.

Levy isn’t as concerned about Southeast redevelopment as he is about making sure the freeway system runs smoothly. If Highway 252 isn’t built, that could spell trouble for traffic in National City and on Interstate 805, Levy said.

“We’re (the Transportation Commission) responsible for the total system from one end of the state to the other,” he said. “We’re not trying to hurt anybody, and we’re not trying to help anyone. We’re just trying to make the system work.”

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