For more than 30 years, Route 56 has been praised and cursed as the possible cure for the Interstate 15 traffic crunch.
Now, the San Diego City Council is going to decide if the east-west road that would link inland Interstate 15 with coastal Interstate 5 should be fast-tracked or delayed until environmental concerns and other problems are addressed.
Last-minute lobbying by anti-Route 56 forces contends that the decades-old project would wreak environmental havoc for coastal residents in North City West and Del Mar Heights, while inland advocates of the highway argue that it is a key to a highway system needed to cope with traffic that inland growth has turned to gridlock.
The Carmel Valley Coalition, a group of about 1,000 residents living near the would-be junction of Route 56 and I-5, mounted a vocal protest against the freeway plan at last week's San Diego Planning Commission meeting. They won a 4-3 commission recommendation that the highway be delayed until other routes are explored and environmental impacts mitigated.
The coalition also sent about 800 post cards and letters to Councilwoman Abbe Wolfsheimer and Mayor Maureen O'Connor to protest "turning a city residential street into a six-lane freeway."
A council hearing Tuesday will focus only on the Route 56 connection with I-5, which Planning Commissioner Lynn Benn, a foe of the route, believes is part of the conflict.
"There are eight separate projects involved here (including the widening of Interstate 5), and separating them into individual projects is clearly against the CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) guidelines," Benn said. "If the environmental impacts of all of these projects were considered together, the impacts would be horrendous."
Ralph Jungk, San Diego Highway Development Assn. chairman, said that he and other transportation experts have studied the environmental impact report for the highway project and found that all the impacts can be resolved.
"We look at it as a regionally significant part of our transportation system," Jungk said. "I only wish that the 200,000 motorists who fight the traffic in North County twice a day could be at that hearing to express their wishes."
The east-west freeway, which would form a 9-mile link from I-15 in Rancho Penasquitos to Carmel Valley Road at I-5, "would destroy valuable open spaces and wetlands and the Penasquitos Lagoon," according to Jerry Mailhot, co-chairman of the Carmel Valley Coalition.
"It attempts to fit a 25-year-old (highway) plan into the densely developed heart of North City West, bisecting it," Mailhot said in an open letter to the San Diego City Council. The road was first proposed in 1957, and a route was drafted in 1965.
At the eastern end of the proposed highway, however, the sentiment is strong for the highway, which has been allocated Proposition A sales-tax funds for a 1991 construction start.
Hannah Cohen, spokeswoman for the Mid-County Transportation Coalition, said the group has endorsed Route 56, as have the Mid-County Transportation Management Assn., and the planning boards of Rancho Penasquitos, Mira Mesa and Rancho Bernardo, all fast-growing North City suburbs.
Benn, who has long been active in fighting intrusions into the sensitive coastal wetlands and lagoons, claims Route 56 and the other traffic improvements planned for the Carmel Valley area would be better placed to the south, on higher ground that would do less damage to the lowlands.
"When alternative routes were proposed, all that Caltrans would do is mount an argument as to why the other routes were unsuitable. They never actually studied the other routes," she said.
One reason that there is an effort to speed construction of Route 56 through North City West is that 700 to 900 construction permits, representing 7,000 to 8,000 housing units, are held in abeyance until Route 56 is built, the planning commissioner said.
"I think that people in the inland should give a thought to the fact that, if this highway is built, it will add 84,000 more ADTs (daily car trips) to the number already out there on the highways," Benn said. "That just might make them change their minds."