O.C.'s road test
It was a bad idea that deserved to die: the six-lane Foothill South toll road through a popular Orange County/San Diego County state park. It violated the principle that parkland is permanently protected. The California State Park and Recreation Commission and the California Coastal Commission rejected the toll road through San Onofre State Beach -- no surprise there. But when the Bush administration also said no, the project’s fate was all but sealed.
There are real traffic problems in Orange County that the Foothill South toll road was meant to solve. But there are other ways to cure the congestion, alternatives that won’t destroy our quality of life or our natural resources.
There is also a roadblock to those alternatives: the Orange County Transportation Corridor Agencies, which dreamed up Foothill South and hasn’t yet publicly abandoned it.
Chartered by the state in 1986, the TCA exists to build roads and link freeways without, in theory, costing taxpayer dollars. It issues bonds, and its revenues come from toll roads. It is also virtually independent of oversight: It can propose, design, permit and operate the road projects it dreams up.
Not surprisingly, for decades the TCA has had only one response to Orange County’s traffic congestion: Build big toll roads. In getting its three projects up and running -- the San Joaquin Hills, Eastern and Foothill North toll roads -- the TCA ignored the environmental consequences. Ecological reserves, the last remaining open space in the region and even lands set aside for protection as mitigation for other development -- all were targeted for toll-funded asphalt.
And yet the projected ridership never materialized. To cover costs, including millions spent on public relations and lobbying, the agency has raised tolls relentlessly, but to no avail. Its toll roads have been mired for years in financial difficulty. Just last year, the TCA applied for a $1.1-billion federal loan bailout from taxpayers to refinance its existing debt.
Meanwhile, traffic congestion has only increased.
With the demise of the toll road through San Onofre State Beach, we have an opportunity for change in Orange County.
What we need is a serious examination of alternatives beyond toll roads, especially options other than new roads through open space and parkland. Possibilities include rapid transit or carpool toll lanes, added to existing roadways, with congestion-sensitive pricing or similar strategies that take demand into consideration.
During the debates over the Foothill South, “Fix the 5 First” became a public rallying cry for widening the existing interstate. This alternative was never taken seriously by the TCA, which identified a 5 Freeway expansion alternative and then dismissed it because it said too many homes and businesses would have to be moved or destroyed. In fact, the TCA displacement estimates were grossly exaggerated, driven by its inexplicable use of sprawling, outdated interchange and ramp designs.
The truth is that the TCA will never decide to fix the 5, because the agency denies it has the legal or financial capacity for such a project. The TCA perceives its single purpose as building toll roads. Until that is changed, Orange County won’t get open-minded traffic planning that looks forward instead of backward.
The Legislature chartered the TCA; now it must fix it. The TCA’s unequivocal mandate must be addressing traffic congestion, not just building toll roads, and it must answer to a comprehensive state transportation agency, in consultation with affected regional agencies
We need mobility, and we need parkland. And we can have both if only we refuse to settle for less.
Running a toll road through San Onofre State Beach was a bad idea from a fundamentally flawed agency. Stopping it was a victory for the region. But what happens next will determine whether that victory has lasting significance.
Bobby Shriver is a member of the Santa Monica City Council and former chairman of the California State Park and Recreation Commission. Joel Reynolds is a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council and directs its urban program.
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