The U.S. Department of Commerce said Wednesday it would hold a public hearing on a state panel's rejection of a controversial toll road through southern Orange County.
The decision was hailed as a victory by toll road opponents and downplayed by officials with the Transportation Corridor Agencies, who wanted to avoid another raucous meeting like the one before the state Coastal Commission.
The February meeting drew more than 3,500 people to the Del Mar Fairgrounds and was the largest in commission history. It ended near midnight with a 8-2 vote rejecting a proposal by the Irvine-based TCA for a 16-mile toll road that would cut through San Onofre State Beach.
The TCA appealed the Coastal Commission's ruling to the Commerce Department but tried to block a public hearing, saying it didn't want another "circus atmosphere." Supporters and opponents of the toll road jeered one another when the Coastal Commission met. But on Wednesday, a TCA spokeswoman said the agency welcomed the hearing. "We're happy to have the opportunity to present the facts to the Department of Commerce," Jennifer Seaton said.
The Commerce Department's decision to hold a hearing was in response to the public's "overwhelming demand" to be heard, said Joel Reynolds, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"The TCA opposed public participation from Day One," Reynolds said.
When and where the hearing will be held hasn't been determined.
"It's essential that it be located in Southern California," Reynolds said. "Our recommendation is to hold the hearing like the Coastal Commission did at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, which was convenient and provided a large-enough space."
The proposed toll road, which would run from Oso Parkway east of Mission Viejo through San Onofre State Beach, has been the subject of intense political debate.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a project supporter, did not renew the state Parks Commission terms of actor-director Clint Eastwood and Bobby Shriver, the governor's brother-in-law. Both attributed the move to their opposition to the toll road, although the governor's office denies it.
Opponents say the $1.3-billion Foothill South tollway would sully a popular state park and famed surfing site. Proponents say the road is needed to help alleviate congestion on I-5 and other O.C. thoroughfares.