The anticipated extension of State Route 241 was recently approved by Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency after much controversy. Though it will resolve traffic congestion on Interstate 5, those who oppose it are concerned with the disturbances in the surrounding environment, especially the San Onofre State Beach Park.
The extension, Foothill-South, is a 16.9-mile, six-lane toll road. It begins at Rancho Santa Margarita, cuts through the state beach park, and then connects with I-5 just south of San Clemente. It provides a direct link from the San Diego County line to Yorba Linda.
The construction of Foothill-South toll road will begin in 2008, and finish in late 2011 or early 2012. The projected cost is $875 million.
According to the press release issued by the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency board, the Foothill-South toll road will decrease congested I-5 freeway segments by 70 percent and reduce congested intersections in South County cities by 50 percent.
But San Onofre State Beach Park was set aside as a preserve in 1971 by Gov. Ronald Reagan to mitigate for other environmentally harming projects. Even Gov. Schwarzenegger has objected to the construction of the toll road through such pristine area.
‘The controversy is where that alignment should be,’ said Ken Ryan, FETC Chairman. FETC voted 12-3 to put the route through the state park.
Over the last six years, $17 million was spent on environmental analyses of where the toll road should be. Based on resource agency input, the road was advised to be as far west and as far north as possible.
FETC initially began with 43 alternatives, which were eventually ‘whittled down to eight alignments,’ Ryan said. Six of them were toll road alternatives, while two were non-toll road alternatives.
One of the non-toll road alternatives proposed by Larry Agran, an Irvine councilman who voted against the construction of the toll road, was to expand and improve the I-5.
‘We looked at that in great detail,’ Ryan said.
He argues that if I-5 were to be widened, 800 homes would have to be taken away, and the intersections would have to widen as well.
They have considered double-decking I-5; however, that would increase the noise impact. Also, the presence of workers during the construction on I-5 would add to the traffic congestion that is already a problem.
‘The alignment we picked is the most environmentally sound alignment,’ Ryan said.
Though San Onofre is the fifth most popular park in California, the beach and campground, which is on the coastal side, is the area that brings the most visitors. Foothill-South toll road will run through the inland of the state park.
However, Agran argues that the construction of the new toll road is ‘against state policy’ and ‘extremely costly and damaging to the environment.’
The toll road is estimated to remove 320 acres of natural habitat.
‘Fix the [I-5] first, and then improve rail transportation dramatically from San Juan Capistrano right up to Irvine,’ Agran proposed.
The Foothill-South toll road will avoid sensitive wetlands areas and will have less than one acre of wetland impact.
‘It will have an impact on the park, but I think it will be minimal,’ said Chris Norby, an Orange County Supervisor that voted in favor of the construction of the toll road.
But Agran responded, ‘Unless you consider a megaroad slicing through the state park not disturbing, I don’t know how he could say that.’
When asked about the future of the toll road, Ryan said, ‘There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.’
Until construction in 2008, two more years are needed to receive approvals from major organizations such as the Federal Highway Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Coastal Commission and the Marine Corps.
Ryan predicts that by 2025 there will have been a 60 percent increase in traffic on I-5.
The construction of the toll road ‘will allow people to free up their lives,’ Norby said.
Ryan believes that the toll road will bring ‘balance between mobility, environment and recreation,’ but Agran believes that it ‘will no doubt be challenged.’