Time to Clear the Air Over San Joaquin Hills Toll Road : * Environmental Questions Must Be Taken Seriously--and Soon

The recent hearings on the proposed San Joaquin Hills tollway became a town meeting on quality of life--whether this new road would ease congestion as promised, or fuel unbridled growth.

The San Joaquin corridor has been talked about for decades, but the lifestyle question increasingly has taken shape before the court of public opinion in recent months. The public, as evident in a recent Times poll, seems assured enough that toll roads are needed. But the margin is close enough for both the road's friends and foes to be encouraged.

Support is especially strong in the southern part of the county, where people have arrived to inhabit new communities only to find themselves stalled in traffic worse than in the places they came from. And it seems to grow the more respondents hear the arguments pro and con. Yet although the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor Agency is likely this week to approve its own environmental report--the ostensible subject of those hearings--it still faces a skeptical federal government and the likelihood of litigation from opponents. So after nearly two decades of planning, about 2,400 public written comments--making the tollway the most commented-upon highway in California history--proponents still have not succeeded in putting to rest the basic question of whether the road will help or hurt.

And make no mistake, proponents did not succeed in bringing the project out of those February hearings into the clear. Moreover, the financing of the road remains a big question mark, and it is directly related to delays in the start of construction. So the road's fundamental problem arises from a failure early on to take environmental questions seriously.

Clearly, the case for new roads and the idea of paying for them in part through tolls ought to have been sufficient to push this project over the top by now--if only proponents had bothered to put their environmental ducks in a row sooner. But they miscalculated in leaving so many unanswered questions to the late innings of the game. They underestimated the degree to which a flawed report might be a lightning rod for the larger question of whether the road was really good for the region or not. Doubts have gathered steam at the very time that the federal government, regional agencies and the new Orange County homeowners are all asking what effect such projects will have on their surroundings.

Whether this road gets built now rests in large part on how well those concerns are addressed, and how quickly. The San Juan Capistrano City Council has broken with a solid block of supporting communities over its own questions about noise and traffic. The federal government raised reservations so strong and far-reaching that they essentially called into question the entire philosophy of regional planning in Orange County, going back years.

The Environmental Protection Agency worried that the road would spur development and traffic that would threaten air quality, and questioned approaches to land-use planning. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had concerns about wetlands and wildlife. The net effect was to cast the federal government as defender of the county's prized standard of living. That task, ironically, ought to have been the province of local officials, who were left saying only that there would be growth with or without a toll road, so get on with it.

That explanation doesn't necessarily cut the mustard when judges and other motorists can see for themselves a cloud of smog hanging these days over the once-clear mountains of Orange County. Proponents had better be prepared to do a better job than they have of persuading the federal government, and most likely the courts, that this new road cutting through pristine canyons truly will benefit the region.

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