Thousands expected for toll road hearing

Thousands are expected to attend a federal hearing today in Del Mar on the controversial proposal to extend an Orange County toll road through San Onofre State Beach.

Heavy security and strict limits on demonstrations will be in place during the hearing at exhibition hall at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

Last February, a raucous California Coastal Commission meeting on the same subject was described by some participants as a circus, with unruly demonstrations, catcalls and shouting matches breaking out among the 3,500 participants inside the same hall.

A poll conducted for the Orange County agency that operates the toll roads and released last week found 58 percent support in Orange County for the project, with 31 percent of OC residents opposing it, according to the North County Times.

In north San Diego County, 39 percent favor building the road while 15 percent are opposed, according to the poll, which was conducted by Strata Research for the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency.

The Coastal Commission in February rejected the 16-mile extension of the 241-mile toll road, which would bisect one of the last remaining coastal wilderness areas in Southern California.

In response, the Transportation Corridor Agency, the entity advocating the project, appealed the decision to the U.S. Commerce Department, arguing the road is needed to alleviate traffic.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a branch of the Commerce Department, has scheduled a hearing at 10:30 a.m. today to consider the TCA’s appeal.

If the Bush Administration determines the project meets the environmental regulations outlined in the Coastal Zone Management Act or that the road is necessary for national security, it could override the Coastal Commission’s rejection.

Opponents of the project, led by the Surfrider Foundation, assert that the proposed six-lane freeway would cause irreparable harm to San Onofre’s Trestles surfing beaches.

Trestles, considered by many as home to North America’s premier waves, is home to the Boost Mobile Pro, the only stop on the U.S. mainland for the Association of Surfing Professionals World Tour.

Environmentalists also argue the toll road would destroy a large area of unspoiled habitat, including the San Mateo Creek watershed. It also would set a bad precedent for the use of state park lands, opponents have argued.

Proponents, namely consultants hired by the TCA, say extending the toll road through San Onofre State Beach would have no impact on on the surf breaks or San Mateo Creek.

The TCA argues that traffic continues to grow in Orange County and the toll road is needed to reduce congestion.