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OCTA keeps tollway in its plans

Times Staff Writer

Transportation officials are so intent on building a toll road through south Orange County that they refuse to remove it from long-range plans, even though a powerful state commission has vetoed the route.

Frustrated environmentalists and others said this week that the Orange County Transportation Authority’s reluctance to change its assumption that the Foothill South tollway through San Onofre State Beach will be built amounts to “putting their head in the sand.”

“For purely political reasons, the Transportation Authority doesn’t seem to want to evaluate future transportation ideas with realistic options,” said Michael Fitts, an attorney for the Endangered Habitats League.

Fitts made his comments after a meeting on a major investment study for transportation projects through 2030 in south Orange County. He and others took exception to the OCTA’s stand on the toll road, which was defeated by the California Coastal Commission last month but is included in the authority’s long-range planning.

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The authority operates the toll lanes along the 91 Freeway and is the county’s largest transportation agency. The Irvine-based Transportation Corridor Agencies, operator of the other Orange County toll roads, proposed the controversial Foothill South route.

Opponents of that proposal also are angry about an idea to lower tolls by half on the 241, 73 and 133 to encourage more motorists; the reduced rate would be subsidized with taxpayer dollars. The OCTA has included the so-called shadow tolls as part of the study ideas.

Many options to help unsnarl traffic and upgrade transit and other services are under consideration, OCTA officials said. The study is being refined, and many ideas now being discussed won’t be in the final document, officials said.

Martin Benson, an Oceanside attorney and Surfrider Foundation member, said he was stunned when he heard the subsidy idea presented at a recent toll agency meeting.

“I’m against it,” Benson said.

When the toll roads were built, the TCA said no taxpayer money would be used to operate roads, Fitts said. But the term “shadow tolls” seems to be a euphemism for “taxpayer-supported toll road,” he said.

The toll roads are privately operated and have accepted small grants from public funds, said Jennifer Seaton, a TCA spokeswoman. She rejected the assertion that a pledge not to use taxpayer funds was ever made.

OCTA Chairman Chris Norby said board members have had frank discussions about the fate of the proposed toll road, especially if it is ultimately killed. “But it’s on appeal and we’re still going on the assumption that the road has to be in the planning,” he said.

The 16-mile toll road, whose proposed route would go from Oso Parkway east of Mission Viejo through San Onofre State Beach, has been the subject of intense political debate. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has supported the road, last week did not renew the terms of actor-director Clint Eastwood and Bobby Shriver, the governor’s brother-in-law, to the state parks commission.

Both attributed the governor’s move to their opposition to building the Foothill South through the state beach park, popular for its surfing, camping and wildlife. The governor’s office denied that assertion.

Orange County Supervisor Patricia Bates, whose district includes the proposed road, said the road debate is not over.

“Until some decision is made on the appeal that the road is dead, this will be part of the 2030 baseline for transportation projects,” she said.

The appeal of the Coastal Commission decision to the U.S. Department of Commerce is expected to take a year.

Subsidizing toll roads is among many ideas that members of the OCTA and toll road boards wish to explore.

“It’s something conceptual. We don’t know if there is an identified source for funding,” said Tustin Mayor Jerry Amante, who sits on both boards.

“We’re trying to squeeze every transportation possibility out there right now; that’s what this study is about,” he said. “And one of the ways was to find out if there’s a way to shadow-toll and backfill with revenue from another source.”

Revenue from Measure M, the county’s half-cent sales tax for transportation projects, has been part of the discussion.

But the TCA would not be able to get Measure M money because the agency was not included in project funding when voters re-approved the measure in 2006, said Hamid Bahadori, director of policy and programs for the Automobile Club of Southern California. The auto club, which supports the Foothill South, took part in OCTA’s planning process for the measure.

“The renewed Measure M did not say shadow tolls, and there are no federal or state sources available for a toll road,” Bahadori said.

Bahadori urged OCTA to study alternative traffic projects to alleviate congestion in case the toll road fails.

Not building the Foothill South “needs to be part of the analysis, because if it’s not, it won’t be in the best interests of the major investment study,” Bahadori said.

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david.reyes@latimes.com


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