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Toll Road Protesters Take Battle to Agency : Transit: They cite flood damage, fund crisis as reasons to stop the work in Laguna Canyon.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As bulldozers rolled back into Laguna Canyon on Monday, about 25 protesters marched into the offices of the Transportation Corridor Agencies, demanding to know how grading for the $1.1-billion toll road can resume in the wake of financial setbacks and flood damage.

Opponents of the San Joaquin Hills toll road angrily contended that county residents will be hit with higher gasoline taxes or other fees to make up for the millions the TCA stands to lose in the county’s investment pool, costly court battles and recent flooding.

“How are you going to fund the toll road now that the county has declared bankruptcy?” asked Thomas Hall, an Irvine retiree who lives near the tollway site. “Are you going to tax us more?”

TCA spokeswoman Lisa Telles, caught off guard by the impromptu protest, tried to assure the sign-carrying crowd that residents will not be called upon to pay any

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funding shortfalls. Telles said it remains unclear just how much TCA has lost but said construction is expected to go ahead as planned.

“We’re going to finish the project,” Telles said.

The 90-minute protest ended with the arrest of environmentalist Dylan Rogan, who refused to leave and was removed by Santa Ana police who were summoned to quell the demonstration. Rogan was cited for trespassing and released by late Monday afternoon.

The protest came as opponents failed to persuade a federal appeals court to bar grading in the picturesque canyon. The court lifted the ban last week, and work resumed Monday, infuriating opponents who say the construction led to recent mudslides that ravaged Laguna Beach homes and businesses.

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To drive home their point, protesters trampled into the TCA headquarters with mud-caked sandals and sneakers.

But Telles insisted the project was not responsible and that the mud flow was more than the debris basins could contain.

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“It’s 4.5 miles from the corridor to the main beach. I don’t know how (the) mud could travel that far,” Telles said.

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But the city of Laguna Beach also plans to file a $400,000 claim against the project for cleanup costs and property damages along the Main Beach Park area, City Manager Kenneth C. Frank said.

“We know it came from other areas (too), but we’ve never had mud flow like that,” Frank said from his office. “When I looked at the toll road construction area, it was obvious that much of the mud was washing into downtown.”

Ricardo Duffy also blamed the grading for damage to his home. The Laguna Beach artist said his home-studio was deluged with muddy waters during the recent rains and that he plans to file a damages claim against the TCA.

“We’ve had hard rains before, but we were never worried,” said Duffy, who said he lost art worth at least $100,000

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Telles told protesters that erosion-control measures are now in place since construction has resumed.

But Hall said the recent flooding proves the measures don’t work. The TCA “wanted to cut through undeveloped land regardless of its impact on the environment,” he said.

Telles told the protesters the construction project has enough money to move forward, even though the TCA had $324 million frozen in the investment pool when the county declared bankruptcy Dec. 6.

The county has released $24 million of those funds, but county officials estimate the TCA will suffer a 23% overall loss on their investment, she said.

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She said the agency is spending an additional $8.9 million to ensure the project will meet its March, 1997, completion date. Any further delay would cost the project $4 million a month, said Telles, who said the shortfall would be made up from money from other sources, possibly even bonds.

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“We’re not sure of our losses,” Telles said, adding that the turmoil surrounding the bankruptcy had made projections impossible. “Until we determine our financial status, we may use some of our contingency funds or revenues from development-fee sources. There also are options to issue completion bonds to complete the project.”

But skeptical protesters continued to hurl questions at Telles, asking for exact budget and financial plans. They also demanded that the agency watch their video, titled “The Great Tax-Funded Traffic Jam,” which contends that the project will drain public funds, generate development and threaten canyon wildlife.

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But Telles refused.

“I’ve already seen it, and it’s (only) half true,” she retorted.

Times staff writer Rene Lynch contributed to this story.


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