More than 1,000 people attended the federal appeal hearing for the proposed Foothill South toll road at the Del Mar Fairgrounds Sept. 22.
The crowds were not quite as epic as February's California Coastal Commission hearing, but road supporters and opponents were out in force urging the federal government to overturn or uphold the Coastal Commission's denial of the project.
The United States Commerce Department has the authority to reverse the commission's decision if it determines the project meets environmental regulations or is needed to improve national security and no other alternatives exist.
"It is critical to be able to demonstrate to the federal government there is absolutely not legal basis to override the Coastal Commissions objection of the toll road," said Mark Massara, director of the Sierra Club's California coastal programs.
Representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration heard testimony from 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. from public officials, organizations and the public. More than 600 individuals were registered to speak, hundreds more than there was time for.
NOAA will report their findings to Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who has until early January to make a decision.
"The importance of today is to overturn the terrible decision of the Coastal Commission, who tried to deprive 24 million Southern Californians mobility," said Jerry Amante, the mayor of Tustin and chair of the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agencies. "We are confident the Secretary of Commerce will do that."
San Diego, Del Mar and Solana Beach city council members were among those to speak at the hearing.
Solana Beach Councilwoman Lesa Heebner said the Coastal Commission made the right call.
"We believe the proposed Foothill South toll road in Orange and San Diego counties is one of the most environmentally destructive and unnecessary transportation projects in Californian history," she said.
Del Mar Deputy Mayor Crystal Crawford said her city council had expressed concerns about the road when they first learned of the project in 2006.
"Even in 2006, it appeared to us the toll road project was not well thought out, alternatives to improving I-5 existed, the project was not justified considering the impact to precious and dwindling resources," she said.
Crawford added that in a time of high gas prices and global warming, the public is demanding better public transit, not more freeways.
The proposed extension of state route 241 would connect Rancho Santa Margarita to Interstate 5 just south of the San Diego County border.
The six-lane road would bisect San Onofre State Beach, which the Coastal Commission said would negatively impact endangered watershed habitat, Native American burial groups, the San Mateo Creek Campground, and surfing at Lower Trestles.
The Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) and road supporters disagree, and said the road would relieve traffic congestion on I-5 and provide an alternative route between San Diego and Los Angeles.
"The region deserves and demands … to have a definite alternative than just I-5," said Assemblyman Martin Garrick, representing the 74th District, which includes much of North County.
Santa Monica Councilman Bobby Shriver, a longtime vocal opponent of the road, said people want to solve the traffic problem, but not with this road. While the Commerce Department's decision is expected to be contested in court, Shriver said continuing to have large crowds attend these hearing is critical to upholding the Coastal Commission's denial.
"They have to see people are opposed to the road," Shriver said. People, not even the federal government, do not like to go against the expressed rule of the people."