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EPA Critique Bares Tollway Bungling : * Will Proponents Ever Learn Environmental Lesson?

It’s hard to imagine a more ringing critique of an environmental report than that delivered last week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of the proposed San Joaquin Hills tollway project.

The federal government’s quibbles normally consist of calls for additional information or a revision here or there. But mere tinkering was far from the minds of those evaluating the report. The report was rejected outright, and accompanied with the blunt assessment of Jeanne Dunn Geselbracht, an EPA project reviewer, that tollway planners needed to “go back to square one.”

The 17-mile project has already been so delayed that it is three years behind schedule, and the back-to-the-drawing-board order from the EPA surely will put the project even further back from construction.

This--coupled with reservations about the toll road that exist already in some affected communities and with continual upward estimates of what it will cost to build the project--has to be damaging news for those pushing the tollway.

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But it would not be so disturbing if it were not going to take so much to get the report up to speed.

The utter failure of the report to satisfy even the most basic concerns of the federal government about environmental questions really is shocking. The EPA was not talking about small potatoes in its rejection; it said the report failed to prove that the highway met laws protecting air quality, wetlands and other environmental resources. It called for more data on the impact of the road, and an assessment of the cumulative environmental damage caused by all major transportation projects in the region.

That’s a tall order. Orange County residents must wonder what, if anything, the corridor agency has gotten for the money it has already paid consultants to answer these questions. More, what does it say about proponents’ commitment to the environment--and what does it say about their respect for the process--if they would submit such a flawed document in the first place?

Anyone who has lived and breathed in the Los Angeles Basin--and who has contemplated life ahead with mandated changes so basic as what kind of cookout is acceptable--knows that air quality is a serious matter these days.

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Such concerns are playing an increasing role in the building of new roads; for example, on Monday, the Orange County Transportation Commission--mindful of the increasing need to respond to such concerns, as they can affect projects--decided to appoint representatives to meet with the Air Quality Management District and the EPA to discuss such concerns affecting their projects.

But San Joaquin Hills tollway officials have known for some time that they needed to get their environmental house in order, even before the recent strict air-quality mandates began to come home to roost.

Indeed, the latest environmental report is not the first. It followed one that was pulled back at the last moment when it was apparent that the rules of the game had changed: The project originally was planned as a freeway, and the set of environmental assumptions necessarily had to change when the project was proposed as a tollway.

One of the arguments for building a new road is to get traffic moving, ultimately a boon for air quality. But for such an important new road, environmental questions must be answered.

So the environmental impact statement is important. What about wetlands? What about streams? What about wildlife?


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