Feds say no to Foothill South

Given the Bush administration’s propensity to ignore science and reason in pushing its anti-environment agenda, it was both surprising and refreshing to see the U.S. Commerce Department hew to the rules when it rebuffed the proposed Foothill South toll road Thursday. It’s unclear whether toll road proponents will take the matter to court, but they and California parkgoers would be better off if they looked for another route instead.

In considering the Transportation Corridor Agencies’ appeal, which asked the federal government to override the California Coastal Commission’s rejection of the road, Commerce Department officials were supposed to avoid rethinking the entire issue and instead restrict themselves to a limited set of questions: Had the Coastal Commission acted within its authority? Were there reasonable alternatives to the proposed route, down the narrow length of San Onofre State Beach? Was the road necessary to national interests? And that’s exactly what they did in a well-reasoned, 28-page refutation of the toll road agency’s arguments.

One of the agency’s emptier contentions was that the proposed road linking south Orange County to northern San Diego County was vital to national security. It would have run along the northernmost rim of Camp Pendleton, on land leased to the state for the park. The federal report includes a smack-down of that claim, with Marine Corps officials saying that Pendleton is secure without such a road. The report also affirms the Coastal Commission’s power to decide issues that affect the coastal zone, even if the land involved is not strictly within that zone.

Most important, the Commerce Department reminds the toll road agency that there are reasonable alternatives to the route it chose, an option that the road’s planners have rejected. Their proposed route would have made the highway an unavoidable presence among the park’s backcountry trails, run close to a popular campground that was built as mitigation for the San Onofre nuclear plant, and bisected an ancient Native American village considered a sacred site by the Acjachemen people.

It’s not easy to find the space in a largely built-out region for a major new road. The toll road’s planners were trying to keep costs down and avoid seizing houses and businesses by routing it through the park. Those are worthy goals, and they took their work seriously in producing the route they did. The Commerce Department decision affirms an even more important message: Would-be builders cannot look to the region’s diminishing reserves of public open spaces and habitats for endangered species as the answer to legitimate concerns about traffic and growth.