Concrete Plans Should Wait

As if a cement-lined river isn't unusual enough, there is revived talk of rolling a highway along the Santa Ana River channel to help ease traffic at the infamous Orange Crush junction by providing motorists with a direct shot to the San Diego Freeway.

Advocates describe the proposed Orange Freeway extension along or atop the river channel as the missing link in Orange County's increasingly jammed freeway systems. Opponents angrily dismiss it as an affront to the environment and an insult to residents living near the Santa Ana River, Southern California's largest stream system and one of the region's main flood-control channels.

The Orange County Transportation Authority in December approved further analysis of the bitterly contested proposal to extend the Orange Freeway along an 11-mile stretch of riverbed, connecting the Orange Crush (where the Garden Grove, Santa Ana and Orange freeways intersect) to the San Diego Freeway.

But before OCTA spends $1.1 million to learn whether the proposal is sound from engineering and political perspectives, the board must determine if a pending lawsuit generated by the previous riverbed highway proposal is going to create an expensive roadblock. To that end, OCTA was right to postpone a decision on providing funds to accelerate study of the proposed highway extension.

OCTA should determine the status of a legal claim lodged by American Transportation Development. The Arizona-based company in 1989 won an agreement with Caltrans to build a highway along the river; several years ago Caltrans canceled the franchise agreement because the firm failed to meet a construction deadline.

The firm sued the state and the lawsuit is now pending, so OCTA shouldn't spend taxpayer money until it knows whether the private company still has a right to pursue the project. Once OCTA is confident that its planning process won't be derailed, board members will be free to speed up the review process.

Traffic on Orange County's highways will only grow more congested, and OCTA board members are obligated to look at every possible option. But if OCTA does opt to conduct a study -- accelerated or not -- board members should expect stiff opposition.

One big question is where the money would come from. Experts years ago pegged the cost of the moribund proposal by the private company at $700 million. Finding that kind of money is going to be difficult. A $438-million renovation planned for the Garden Grove Freeway -- its first the freeway's completion 35 years ago -- is being scaled back because of state highway funding cuts.

OCTA already has a lot on its plate. As OCTA Chairman Tim Keenan wrote in these pages on March 16, the agency's list of projects already includes the Garden Grove Freeway upgrade, a $125-million interchange connecting the San Diego and Costa Mesa freeways, the $1.5-billion CenterLine light-rail proposal, the 91 Express Lanes purchase and improved bus service.

Talk of extending the Orange Freeway will delight many motorists now using surface streets. It will anger environmentalists who argued that the previous proposal would have added insult to injury along parts of the river.

And the idea is bound to ignite fierce opposition among nearby residents in Santa Ana and Fountain Valley.

There is one certainty: There's no room for a private toll road operator on the river channel -- not after the mess that resulted from the state's decision to allow a private company to build toll lanes on the Riverside Freeway. The last thing county residents need is another private company profiting from the county's transportation woes.

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