Toll road issue likely to end up in federal court

A decades-long battle over a proposed toll road extension through San Onofre State Beach appears likely to end up in federal court following another chaotic public hearing on the issue.

More than 1,000 people packed a meeting at the Del Mar Fairgrounds on Monday to give testimony before the U.S. Department of Commerce, which is reviewing an appeal of the California Coastal Commission’s decision in February to reject the tollway proposal.

Opponents of the state Route 241 project testified that the six-lane toll road would spoil one of California’s most popular parks, endanger animal species and ruin the world famous Trestles surf breaks.

The current toll road system starts at Highway 91 near the Orange- Riverside county line and ends south of Irvine in inland Orange County. The proposed extension would complete a missing gap between Rancho Santa Margarita and Oceanside.

Proponents of the $1.3 billion project argued it would relieve traffic congestion in southern Orange County, create jobs and provide an alternate link between San Diego and Orange counties in the event of a disaster.

The meeting lasted for about 10 hours. Dozens of police officers were on hand to discourage the raucous behavior that marked the Coastal Commission’s February meeting.

Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez has until Jan. 7 to decide if its benefits to national security outweigh its adverse effects and whether there are viable alternatives to the proposed route.

His ruling, however, is unlikely to decide the issue. Whichever side is unhappy with his decision is widely expected to file an appeal in federal court.