Plans for a controversial toll road in southern Orange County got a boost in Washington, D.C., Thursday when a congressional subcommittee approved a bill with language that could speed up the environmental review for the road.
Road supporter Rep. Ron Packard (R-Vista) had requested the wording, which refers specifically to the proposed Foothill South toll road and could restrict how broadly federal regulatory agencies can critique the need for the proposed $644-million project.
The move comes at a critical juncture for the road, with two key agencies questioning whether the new highway is even needed. Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have raised wide-ranging questions about the project, which would cut San Onofre State Beach in half to link Oso Parkway and Interstate 5. It would also run through what some environmentalists say is one of the largest concentrations of endangered plants and animals in the state.
Environmentalists immediately denounced Packard's move, saying it would seriously undermine review of what they say would be the most ecologically destructive piece of the county toll-road system.
"This toll road can't stand the light of day. It's a boondoggle," said Dan Silver, coordinator of the Endangered Habitats League. He accused Packard of circumventing the federal review process.
But a congressional source with information on the project noted that a third regulatory agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, already has concurred that there is a need for the road.
"They're not exactly softies," the source said. "We want to make sure this road gets done, but we believe it can be done in an environmentally sensitive manner. . . . We wouldn't have done this if Fish and Wildlife hadn't been on board."
The Foothill South toll road has long been opposed by environmentalists. But the debate grew more heated in recent months when both the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers repeatedly declined to say that the road is needed--a required step in reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act.
The language added to the transportation appropriations bill states that the federal highways administrator would consider only the toll-road routes identified in regional planning and would restrict outside agency comments to matters under those agencies' direct authority. It was approved by the transportation appropriations subcommittee, of which Packard is a member. The measure now goes to the Appropriations Committee and the full House.
EPA scientist David Carlson said the language might limit his agency's review role. "I would think it definitely has some implications as far as setting a precedent," he said.
But the congressional source said such language is not uncommon, adding: "What we're trying to do is use legislative language to either speed up or get around the problem."