Each time Stephanie Hatch drives from her home in South Orange County to San Diego, she takes a deep sigh.
Hatch of Trabuco Canyon avoids taking her toddler son south — despite attractions such as Sea World and the zoo — for one reason: traffic. The last time she drove that way was last spring. But if there were an alternative to the 5 Freeway, she said, that would change.
"You think, 'Oh gosh, this would be so much nicer if we had the toll road,'" she said.
Hatch is referring to an extension of the 241 Toll Road, which has been discussed for years but is vehemently opposed by environmentalists, among others.
Yet many residents in the area, like Hatch, already equip their cars with transponders because they see toll roads as a way of life. For them, wanting the extension is natural.
Now, the project is again in play.
Last month, the board for the Transportation Corridor Agencies, which builds and finances toll roads in Orange County, voted to conduct a $3.9-million feasibility study for an addition that would run from Oso Parkway in Rancho Santa Margarita to the vicinity of Ortega Highway.
If approved, construction could begin in early 2013, said Lisa Telles, the chief communications officer for the agency. The study is expected to take a year. So far, nothing is final, and the board of directors will consider environmental effects, finances and engineering.
The agency, which was formed in the 1980s by Orange County officials, has long grappled with opposition to extending the 241 south. Previously, the group proposed extending the toll road 16 miles, from Rancho Santa Margarita to the 5 Freeway at Basilone Road, south of San Clemente. The route would have cut through Camp Pendleton.
That proposal was eventually shot down in 2008 by the California Coastal Commission and then by the Bush administration and was thought to be dead.
Meanwhile, the toll roads have suffered along with the economy.
From the beginning of the economic decline in 2007 through the fiscal year that ended in June 2010, trips were down 17% on the 51-mile system's Foothill and Eastern toll roads, which include the 241, 261 and 133 tollways, according to the Transportation Corridor Agencies.
In June 2010, there were 4.8 million toll booth transactions on those roads, down from 5 million from July of 2009. Still, daily traffic volume on the 241 averaged 43,000 vehicles at the busiest section, according to the California Department of Transportation.
Earlier this year, the corridor agencies began sending out mailers to residents around San Clemente and Mission Viejo, to inform them that the project would be moving forward. Officials at the Coastal Commission and Camp Pendleton say they have not recently met with the agency.
Telles said the issues with the expansion relate to the final four miles.
"That's the area we're working to adjust," she said.
The expansion was opposed by various groups who argued that the path would encroach on wildlife habitat; alter surf conditions at Trestles, a famed San Onofre State Beach surf spot; and threaten national security, among other arguments.
Those opponents say that the newly proposed four-mile extension is a veil for the same failed route and that the study is a waste.
"If they have some alternative that doesn't go through the [San Onofre] park, let's hear it," said Damon Nagami, a staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Everyone agrees that congestion through Orange County is a problem."
Nagami and other opponents have suggested widening the 5 Freeway.
"But they just keep beating this dead horse, and it's not productive for anyone," he said.
Rancho Santa Margarita-area residents, however, say they're eager for construction.
Billy Vayda already attempts to avoid traffic by leaving work by 2 p.m. When the power went out in San Diego in September, it took him five hours to get from Los Angeles to his home in Rancho Santa Margarita. On that trip, he used the 241 for his final miles home and said, "It was easy." He uses the toll roads about three times a week and would like to see the 241 extended.
"Put it in," said Vayda, 45, who lives about two miles from where the road ends. "There's a lot of people here. You have to make things work."
Each of his five cars is equipped with a transponder, as are many in his neighborhood.
George Garrett, who lives a couple of doors down, said that when he bought his home in 1998, the extension was in the paperwork.
"Personally, I can't wait for it to go through," said Garrett, 76.
Tiffany Kennedy, who lives near Hatch, said she takes her children surfing near San Clemente a couple times a week.
"If the toll road is built, people are going to use it," she said. "We could just jump on it and get to the beach quickly."
But Kennedy figures the chances of seeing anything happen soon is slim.
Hatch agrees. "You accept that it's not there, and you deal with it," she said.