Toll Road: Thousands showed for meeting

A federal public hearing today on a controversial plan to extend an Orange County toll road through San Onofre State Beach drew more than 1,000 people, but the gathering was orderly, in sharp contrast to the raucous behavior that marred an earlier meeting on the subject.

Opponents of the state Route 241 project testified the six-lane toll road would permanent harm one of the few remaining coastal wilderness areas left in Southern California.

“This land was reserved as a state park in the first place, but 60 percent of it would be impacted by this road,’' said Jayme Timberlake, a 29-year-old resident of Solana Beach.

“They made this a state park to preserve it, not to put a road through it,’' she said. This is a unique and special coastal watershed. It is the last in Southern California that has not been impacted.’'

Supporters of the $1.3 billion project say it will relieve congestion in southern Orange County and create jobs.

“There is no disagreement that I-5 is very congested and it will only get worse as time goes by,’' Thomas Margro, chief executive officer of the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agencies, the entity seeking to build the toll road, said during the hearing. “That is why the 241 is essential to our transportation needs.’'

The California Coastal Commission in February rejected the extension of the 241 toll road. In response, the TCA 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, considered the TCA’s appeal during today’s scheduled 10-hour public hearing, but will not make a determination until later.

“I’d like to emphasize we are gathering information today,’' Jane Luxton, the NOAA’s general counsel, said at the start of the hearing. “No decisions will be made regarding the 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 reasons, it could override the Coastal Commission’s rejection.

Before the meeting got under way at O’Brien Hall at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, dozens of police offers were on hand to discourage the raucous behavior that marked the Coastal Commission’s hearing.

“There are strong opinions on both sides,’' Luxton said at the start of the hearing. “We want to hear your remarks. Please do not interrupt or shout in response to individual speakers.’'

Last February’s Coastal Commission meeting was described by some participants as a circus, with unruly demonstrations, catcalls and shouting matches breaking out among the 3,500 participants.

Today’s hearing was much more subdued.

The crowd was largely broken up into three groups - union members, environmentalists and surfers.

Supporters wore orange T-shirts that read “California 241 - Less traffic more jobs.’'

Those against the toll road donned green or black T-shirts that read “Save the park - stop the toll road,’' or “Save Trestles.’'

Surfers, led by the Surfrider Foundation, assert that the freeway would cause irreparable harm to San Onofre’s surfing beaches.

One of the area’s surf breaks, Lower Trestles is considered by many as North America’s premier wave. Trestles 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 argued.

“The TCA’s rich man’s highway to nowhere is the wrong road at the wrong time at the wrong place,’' Mark Massara, director of the Sierra Club’s California coastal programs, testified.

Other opponents of the project included Bobby Shriver, a Santa Monica City Councilman and brother-in-law of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“The people oppose this,’' Shriver said. “The people who live around here oppose this. Anyone who says otherwise is making things up.’'

On having to hold another hearing following the Coastal Commission’s rejection of the project, Shriver said, “We opposed the road and won. That’s the irritating thing.’'

Proponents 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.

Tustin Mayor Jerry Amante, chairman of the TCA, who was the first speaker at today’s hearing, testified that the toll road is needed to meet the transportation needs of 21 million people in Southern California.

“The 241 is the final link in the plan,’' Amante said. “It will relieve major congestion on Interstate 5 to the benefit of the entire region. It will save time and money in commuting, plus reduce greenhouse gas emissions.’'