O.C. TOLL ROAD HITS DEAD END IN D.C.

The federal government declined Thursday to breathe new life into a plan to carve a toll road through southern Orange County, apparently ending a contentious, years-long campaign by transportation officials who predict that without it, the current freeway system is destined for breakdown.

Unless they turn to the courts for relief, transportation officials in Orange County will be forced to begin anew on plans to unlock the congested Interstate 5 through south Orange County, a stretch they predict will eventually become one of the worst freeway bottlenecks in Southern California. Planners must also determine how to complete the toll road system in Orange County, the only such network in the state.

Over the past several years, the fight over the toll road has grown from a parochial transportation feud into a battle that entangled the state's top leaders. The route chosen by transportation officials would have cut a six-lane turnpike through a state park and skirted the sands of the famed Trestles surf break. That prospect galvanized environmental conservation and surfing groups who were joined by several prominent state officials in opposing the road.

On the other side, advocates hailed the proposed Foothill South toll road as the key to absorbing the traffic triggered by mushrooming development in southern Orange County and the steady truck traffic in and out of San Diego County. The road was decades in the planning, and dozens of routes were studied before planners picked the proposed 16-mile path.

In February, the California Coastal Commission rejected that route, but advocates hoped -- and conservation groups feared -- that the Bush Administration would step in to save it. But in its 28-page decision, the U.S. Commerce Department upheld the commission's position.

The toll road agency can appeal the decision in federal court, but for now the proposed route through San Onofre State Beach is dead.

"In the face of overwhelming evidence, this decision is an abandonment by the federal government of its responsibility to the environment and to national security," said Tustin Councilman Jerry Amante, who chairs the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency board.

"This decision is inexplicably anti-commerce and inexplicably anti-neighborhood," he said.

As toll road advocates scratched their heads and stewed, surfers and environmentalists popped champagne.

"Hooray, hooray, hooray," said state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, who filed two lawsuits blocking the toll road when he was attorney general.

Under the joint federal-state coastal act that helps regulate shoreline development across the country, federal officials could only override the state's decision if they found the project had no reasonable alternatives or was necessary to national security, according to Commerce Department officials. They said neither criteria was met.

"We thought it was a pretty clear decision," said Jane Luxton, general counsel for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the Commerce Department. In September, she presided over a 10-hour hearing on the toll road, attended by thousands. The appeal process generated an estimated 35,000 comments -- more than any case in recent memory, according to an administration spokesman.

The $1.3-billion Foothill South extension would have connected Rancho Santa Margarita to Interstate 5 at Basilone Road just over the San Diego County line at Camp Pendleton and would have been the final link in the county's 67-mile toll road system. The turnpike now ends in the midst of a residential community.

Transportation officials argued that their proposal included significant environmental improvements: preservation and restoration of endangered wildlife habitats, upgraded treatment of highway runoff and $100 million for state parks.

"I'm stunned that any right-thinking secretary of Commerce could make this disastrous a decision," Amante said. Anti-road activists have "been able to throw a roadblock in the path of progress . . . and to mire our residents in a poor quality of life for the sake of their interests."

Amante would not confirm whether the toll road agency will mount a legal challenge, but he made clear that toll road supporters were not about to give up: "We don't intend to just throw our hands in the air and say, 'Oh well.' "

For their part, opponents of the road were jubilant over what they deemed a surprise decision. They had been braced for a last-minute rollback of environmental protections, similar to others made in the waning days of the Bush administration.

"Once you allow the veil of state park protection to be breached, it becomes impossible to defend other state parks that will be put on the chopping block for some so-called essential public purpose," said Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, part of the Save San Onofre Coalition. "We simply can't allow our state parks system to be sacrificed for projects that have to go somewhere, but for which agencies no longer have the resources to buy public land."

Luxton said the timing of the decision was administrative, set in motion by the Coastal Commission decision, rather than political.

The Coastal Commission rejected plans for the road at a raucous hearing in Del Mar last February, saying that the six-lane road violated the state's Coastal Zone Management Act. The panel cited problems including the destruction of sensitive habitats and wetlands, harm to a Native American cultural site and potential devastation of a popular campground.

The Transportation Corridor Agencies, which builds and finances toll roads in Orange County, appealed that decision to the federal government, which has jurisdiction because the toll road would have connected with a federal highway.

Relieved that the toll road battle has seemingly come to an end, opponents of the turnpike are urging road advocates to join them.

"The toll road agency has nowhere else to go anymore," Reynolds said.

The decision by Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez cited six alternate routes for a new south Orange County road that had been listed by the Coastal Commission, including an 8.7-mile extension of the Foothill South through San Clemente that would join with arterial roads to connect with Interstate 5. The federal findings do not endorse a specific route, but say that other reasonable options for a toll road extension are available.

The department has overridden 14 of the 43 appeals considered since 1972.

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susannah.rosenblatt@ latimes.com

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