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A Balanced Path

Orange County’s new quasi-public toll roads have offered the promise of relief from congestion. They also have raised environmental concern. Both aspects of the debate have become an important part of the local public policy conversation in recent years.

The roads are back in the news, and as much as the specifics have changed, the fundamentals of the discussion remain the same. On the one hand, we had the new Eastern Transportation Corridor opening and offering an alternative to the daily parking lot on the Riverside Freeway. It is being hailed for its vistas. At the same time, the proposed Foothill Transportation Corridor in South County was raising new questions, eliciting concern that the Environmental Protection Agency effectively has had its oversight quietly curtailed during the recent scramble to get a federal budget passed.

Today, we have the same mix of excitement over traffic relief and concern over environmental impact that has characterized the debate for the last decade. How those charged with the supervision of these roads balance the concerns ultimately will contribute to the success of these projects. Riders on a family budget will have the final say.

Traffic has been an important component of the intangible quality-of-life factor in Orange County. In recent weeks, motorists have been treated to an addition to the infrastructure. The new Eastern Transportation Corridor, by all accounts, provides substantial traffic relief. The free ride of the early days is over and now the real test comes. Officials said last week that they were pleased despite a 42% drop in traffic once operators began charging to use the road. However, they might want to monitor that $3.25 fee even as they look to measure usage.

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The road is clearly a plus because it addresses a crucial question that has been central to the exurban development formula of recent years. The job centers of Orange County attract residents who live in more affordable bedroom communities in Riverside County. This has made for long commutes, and frayed nerves.

The toll roads were planned in the years when that staple of California living, the freeway, no longer seemed a guaranteed solution to the boundless growth opportunities of the past. So in a sense the roads are a response to the arrival of the rush hour and the loss of money for the big public works project. With those developments has come the disappearance of some component of the notion of California as a freewheeling place. With little public money to finance new free road construction, a concept that appeared heretical for California, although familiar in the East, was born.

Orange County has proved to be a unique laboratory within the state for a mix of tollway construction: the purely private project on the Riverside Freeway and the separate combination of private and public investment that has been used by the Transportation Corridor Agencies to construct the San Joaquin Hills, the Eastern and the Foothill tollways.

The passion over the San Joaquin Hills corridor arose from a collision between the desirability of preserving pristine hills and the hopes of developers along with the inadequacy of coastal roads to serve a growing county. In order to provide access to the job centers in central Orange County, and to Long Beach and Los Angeles to the north, there was a trade-off.

The environmental questions remain for the future of the Eastern corridor and for the controversial Foothill corridor in South County. Considering the concerns that have been raised by both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA about whether the latter road is needed at all, a full environmental review seems warranted.

The opening of the Eastern corridor itself has been attended with some concerns about future development. But a substantial mitigation effort also was made on that road.

Providing new infrastructure to accommodate growth and preserve the best of the Orange County landscape is a big challenge. It has been that way during the early development of these roads and will continue to be so.


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