Bush Administration Halts Toll Road Through State Park

In its waning days, the Bush Administration’s Commerce Secretary handed environmentalists, surfers, Native Americans, and California park users a major victory when it sustained the California Coastal Commission’s objection to a vastly destructive proposal for a new toll highway through San Onofre Beach State Park.  The decision brings to a halt the misguided 16-mile Foothill-South toll road project that Orange County officials have been pushing for nearly three decades.

First conceived in 1981, the Foothill-South was approved by the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency (TCA) in early 2006.  The highway would carve a path southward from the existing Foothill-Eastern toll road (SR-241) through undeveloped sage scrub and oak woodlands, bisecting the pristine Donna O’Neill Land Conservancy and threading four miles through San Onofre before joining I-5 at the mouth of San Mateo Creek, near the famed Trestles surf beach.  Along the way, the toll road would cause incalculable damage to a wide range of coastal resources:  Native American sacred sites; one of the last remaining populations of the Pacific pocket mouse; one of the state park system’s most popular and best-loved campgrounds; and the few southern steelhead still hanging on in San Mateo Creek.  All this in the name of promoting more suburban sprawl in the region.

On behalf of a coalition of environmental groups and state park advocates, SMW immediately filed a CEQA lawsuit challenging TCA’s environmental review for the project.  (Eye on the Environment, June 2006.)  Then, while the suit was pending, TCA sought certification from the Coastal Commission that the toll road was consistent with the federal Coastal Zone Management Act (“CZMA”).  The coalition and SMW fought back, arguing before the Commission that the project violated nearly every applicable coastal policy.  In early 2008, after more than 3,000 people attended the largest public hearing in its 30-year history, the Commission overwhelmingly voted to deny certification, concluding that Foothill-South represented one of the most destructive proposals ever advanced in California’s coastal zone.

The celebration, however, was muted.  Toll road opponents knew that TCA could appeal the decision to the Secretary of Commerce.  And under the governing regulations, the math led to an inescapable conclusion—under any combination of events, the appeal would be decided during the Bush Administration, most likely in the lame-duck period when the threat of environmental mischief is greatest.

As expected, TCA filed its appeal.  But both the Coastal Commission, represented by the Attorney General, and the coalition, represented by the SMW, fought gamely, filing hundreds of pages of legal argument and expert studies, and once again turning out more than two thousand members of the public to comment in support of the Coastal Commission’s decision.  Then, on December 18, 2008, the remarkable news came: the Secretary of Commerce agreed with the Commission and the coalition, finding that TCA had ignored reasonable and available alternatives to the destructive toll road.  The project was inconsistent with the CZMA.

The campaign is not yet over.  While the Secretary’s decision prevents the project from proceeding, TCA has left open the possibility of challenging that decision in court.  But the agency has publicly pledged to reach out to toll road opponents to discuss alternative solutions to the region’s transportation problems—a major departure from its past method of doing business.  The Commerce victory reminds us never to give up hope, even in the face of daunting odds—a most welcome (if unexpected) parting gift from the Bush Administration.