Hundreds Cheer as Panel Turns Down Freeway Extension

Times Urban Affairs Writer

About 600 flag-waving North Tustin-area residents cheered Monday as the Orange County Transportation Commission unanimously rejected plans to extend the Garden Grove Freeway through their neighborhoods and conceivably destroy several hundred homes.

Instead, the panel accepted a series of recommendations from its policy committee, including proposals to alleviate the traffic bottleneck problem on the Santa Ana Freeway (Interstate 5) by widening it and other freeways in Orange County.

Commission member James Beam, mayor of Orange, joked that the proposed freeway extension had been "DOA--dead on arrival" and commented that this was a rare case of political, economic and technical analyses pointing to the same conclusion.

The policy committee concluded that while the proposed extension might reduce traffic on the Santa Ana Freeway, it would not justify the increased congestion on the Garden Grove Freeway west of the Costa Mesa Freeway (State 55), or the relocation or destruction of several hundred homes in the North Tustin area.

"Democracy can work and does work," said Commission Chairman Harriett Wieder, an Orange County supervisor, as she and other commission members on stage started the mass waving of small, plastic American flags distributed in the foyer before Monday's panel session began.

There was loud applause from the audience, which filled the auditorium in the Santa Ana City Hall-Police Annex building. Last week, commission officials decided to move the site of the meeting from the county Hall of Administration to the city annex because of the large number of North Tustin residents expected to attend.

Most of the onlookers were members of the Santiago, Foothill and Orange Park Acres community associations who believed that their homes and life styles were threatened by the various freeway proposals being studied.

Some real estate brokers had even claimed that home values were declining in the area because of fears that several hundred houses would be bulldozed or tunneled under in order to accommodate the proposed freeway work.

But a potentially nasty confrontation turned into a political love fest as speaker after speaker came to the podium to praise the rejection of the Garden Grove Freeway extension and related proposals for freeway connectors in the same area.

For example, Janine Harmon of the Santiago Community Assn. said she had been "reassured" by the process that led to community involvement in Monday's decision. She said she was "overwhelmed" by the number of ideas for solving the bottleneck problem that she heard over the phone from area residents during the past few weeks.

She passed one such idea on to the commission herself: purchasing developer's land for use as open space in order to avoid future high-density development that aggravates transportation problems.

Wieder said it was an old idea with a lot of merit, and suggested that the California Coastal Commission could save millions of dollars by purchasing land instead of going through costly, time-consuming legal battles over public access to the coast.

However, neither Harmon nor Wieder explained how they would finance such land purchases.

Nielsen Applauded

Meanwhile, Irvine Co. President Thomas H. Nielsen was applauded when he announced his firm's support for rejection of the freeway proposals. He thanked the audience and added wryly, "We don't hear that very often."

The Irvine Co. owns most of the land being developed in the area that would be served by the planned Eastern, Foothill and San Joaquin freeways. Freeway critics have blamed the company's development plans for increasing the likelihood of more traffic and, thus, a need for more highways.

The only hint of controversy at Monday's meeting was supplied by commission member and county Supervisor Ralph Clark, who also serves as chairman of the Orange County Transit District.

Clark complained that the commission is dependent upon the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) to widen existing freeways, the preferred alternative to constructing freeway connectors through North Tustin. He accused Caltrans of "dragging its feet."

A man from Orange stood up and demanded the names of key Caltrans officials to whom he and other members of the audience could write letters. But Supervisor Bruce Nestande, a member of the state Transportation Commission--which oversees Caltrans--defended the agency and said he was optimistic that the widening projects would be completed.

Construction on Schedule

As people filed out of the auditorium, Caltrans' Regional Director Don Watson, an ex officio, non-voting member of the county Transportation Commission, said that actual construction in connection with the widening of the Santa Ana Freeway would begin on schedule despite recent delays in planning work.

"It is on schedule," Watson said.

In receiving a series of transportation proposals from its policy committee, the commission also accepted recommendations to extend the Orange Freeway (California 57) from the Garden Grove Freeway (California 22) to the San Diego Freeway (Interstate 405) along the Santa Ana River, and to seek a more remote alignment for the planned Eastern freeway.

The proposal would, in effect, make the Eastern freeway an extension of the Laguna Freeway (California 133) from Irvine through the mountains to the Riverside Freeway (California 91) between Weir Canyon and Corona.

The commission also accepted a recommendation to coordinate land use with available transportation resources in an effort to minimize adverse effects on traffic.

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