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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Army engineers criticize South Orange County tollroad agency

Part of toll road agency's Foothill South appeal is inaccurate, Army Corps of Engineers says. TCA officials may seek a retraction.

By David Reyes, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
April 15, 2008

In a strong rebuke by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency proposing a toll road through San Onofre State Beach has been accused of making false and misleading statements in an appeal to federal officials.

Col. Thomas H. Magness, the corps' district director in Los Angeles, charged in a letter last week that the appeal by Irvine-based Transportation Corridor Agencies challenging the project's denial by the state Coastal Commission contains false statements and mischaracterizes the Army's role in the planning process.

"I am compelled to highlight a few areas of the public record where I have found inaccurate statements as well as inferences that misrepresent the Corps' preliminary determinations," Magness wrote to the U.S. Department of Commerce, which will rule on the appeal.

TCA officials angrily denied the allegations and may demand a retraction.

The six-page letter, experts suggest, could weaken the transit agency's position by, among other things, calling into question the selection of the so-called Green Alignment that would cut through the state beach.

Contrary to the TCA's appeal, Magness wrote, the corps has "at no time" ruled out other, less controversial routes.

"It's significant for the corps to weigh in that way," said Deborah A. Sivas, director of the Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford Law School. Not usually known to be proactive, she said, the corps -- judging from the tone of its letter -- is sensitive to the TCA's use of its name.

Brian Segee, a staff attorney for the Washington, D.C.-based Defenders of Wildlife, which opposes the toll road, agreed. "For the corps to go on record like this, and directly contradict the TCA and say outright that they believe there are practical alternatives, absolutely undermines the TCA's appeal," he said.

TCA directors defended their agency's appeal and planning process, saying they were stunned by the corps' letter and its tone.

The communication prompted an angry call to Magness from Thomas Margro, the toll road agency's chief executive. The corps' letter, Margro said in an interview, makes it sound as if the TCA approved the route "in the dead of night," when, in fact, the action was known by all participants, including the corps.

TCA Director Jerry Amante said that after reading both the TCA's appeal and Magness' letter, he had concluded "there's nothing misleading in the appeal" and predicted the federal government would react favorably to it.

At an estimated cost of $875 million, the proposed Foothill South would be the final link in Orange County's network of toll roads. It would run 16 miles from Oso Parkway in Rancho Santa Margarita to Interstate 5 at Basilone Road, south of San Clemente.

Although opponents say it would destroy a popular state park, proponents say the road is needed to help alleviate congestion on I-5 and thoroughfares in southern Orange County.

The route was selected after being reviewed by a collaborative -- a term coined by the TCA -- including the Navy, Federal Highway Administration and the corps. But the TCA's description of the corps as part of a group that excluded alternative alignments was false, Magness wrote; the engineers provided only a preliminary opinion, making no assertion that other toll road routes were impractical.

"We find that lots of folks try to spin things to help their argument," said David J. Castanon, chief of the corps' regulatory division in Los Angeles. "Our role is to help cut through things . . . to find out what really matters and to make a fair and balanced decision."

Amante disputed Magness' version of events, calling his letter "disingenuous."

"Let's be honest," he said. "The letter was probably written as a result of pressure being put on the corps by environmentalists."

The corps' letter is part of a flurry of recent missives to the Commerce Department, including one from the TCA urging that no public hearing be held on its appeal to avoid a repetition of the "circus atmosphere" that occurred at the Coastal Commission's hearing. That lively February meeting drew a crowd of more than 3,500, the largest ever to attend a commission hearing. It concluded with commissioners voting 8 to 2 that the proposed Foothill South violated the California Coastal Act, which regulates development along the state's 1,100-mile shoreline.

In its letter, the TCA took exception, among other things, to the hearing's location at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, which, it said, is 50 miles from the proposed toll road, "a location calculated to maximize attendance by project opponents."

The Coastal Commission said the hearing was held at a mutually agreeable location and, for the most part, was civil and quiet.

The proposed toll road has also been the subject of intense political debate. Last month Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who supports the road, declined to renew the state Parks Commission terms of actor-director Clint Eastwood and Bobby Shriver, the governor's brother-in-law, both of whom oppose it.

And several state officials opposed to the road have urged the federal government to let the Coastal Commission's rejection of it stand.

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