Feds Kill Foothill-South Toll Road Proposal. Now What? Punt?

2trestles.jpgUPDATED WITH TCA NON-RESPONSE RESPONSE; BLOOMBERG REPORT...

If the posting times are correct, The Orange County Register (9:40 a.m.) beat the Los Angeles Times (10:03 a.m.) in getting the news out that the U.S. Department of Commerce had announced it would uphold the state Coastal Commission's rejection of the plan to extend the 241 Foothill-South toll road through San Onofre State Park and perilously close to Trestles beach.

Jane C. Luxton, general counsel of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), sat through more than eight hours of public testimony--for and against the extension--at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in September. Speakers included everyone from local political luminaries to hippie burnouts who probably live in their vans. Crews on both sides of the debate hauled in demonstrators to hold up signs, show thumbs up or down for speakers for or against their positions (ala this woman shown here) and applaud or hiss speakers, despite Luxton's pleas not to do so.

241 foes apparently got her attention.

"This decision is a fatal blow to this terrible proposal and a great victory for California," said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation, at a hastily organized Save San Onofre Coalition press conference. "... Today's decision by the Bush Administration, which has not distinguished itself on environmental matters affecting California, means this project was so fundamentally flawed even a million-dollar lobbying blitz couldn't save it."

Bloomberg News Service reports that a spokeswoman for the toll-road building Transportation Corridors Agency (TCA) says the agency is reviewing the ruling and hasn't yet decided on the next step.

Reporter Peter J. Brennan's Bloomberg report says that even had toll-road proponents won permission to build, the Wall Street credit crunch may have dealt a financial death blow.

The credit crunch has increased the cost of raising $1.1 billion to complete the final link of the Foothill/Eastern toll roads, and Brennan quotes Ken Naehu of Bel Air Investment Advisors LLC in Los Angeles saying plans to sell more bonds in 2010 may be scuttled altogether.

"It just might not be doable at these levels," Naehu tells Brennan. "I've seen $150 million bonds that have had a difficult time selling to investors. You can imagine what it would be with another zero added to it."

The TCA used toll-backed bonds to finance construction in the 1990s, but as R. Scott Moxley and Alex Brant-Zawadzki have repeatedly reported in the Weekly, inflated ridership figures used to secure those bonds have never been met, causing revenues to miss projections and the bonds' value to decline, threatening their credit ratings.

In October, the troubled agency sought a $1.1 billion bailout from the U.S. Transportation Department to refinance $4.24 billion of bond debt. Brennan notes revenue in the year ended June 30 fell to $193.8 million, 17 percent less than forecast.

The NOAA said it could only override the Coastal Commission if "no reasonable alternative to the project exists" or if the road was "in the interest of national security." Neither condition was met, according to the agency.

Toll-road opponents and proponents predicted legal action would likely accompany whatever decision NOAA made.

But Goldstein, maintaining that the proposed route violated federal and state coastal protection laws and that viable alternatives are available, called on the TCA to drop any planned legal challenge.

"While today's decision represents a significant victory for the thousands of individuals and
groups dedicated to protecting San Onofre State Beach," she said, "this long process is not yet over. On behalf of the Save San Onofre Coalition, we call upon the TCA to suspend all litigation and federal lobbying activities, and take these resources and invest them in studying reasonable alternatives to this ill-conceived toll road."

Read the NOAA press release breaking the news here.
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