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More road blocks in the way of Route 56

Lisa Ross and Erik Bruvold
Ross chairs the SR 56 Task Force, a citizens advocacy group for a complete Route 56. Bruvold is director of government relations for the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation.

04-May-2000 Thursday

Next week the final and most important section of the most important new
highway in San Diego goes to the Coastal Commission for final approvals.
And the road ahead is rockier than ever for state Route 56.

It's taken 20 years to cobble funding from dozens of sources, to approve an
environmentally sound route, and a get a public vote.

Those of us who worked so hard with our public officials to do the right
thing on Route 56 knew that with the number of agencies, community groups
and property owners involved, we could not take any shortcuts if we wanted
to complete Route 56. So over time, the tab has soared to $110 million for
the final five miles. And that doesn't include direct connectors to
Interstate 5 and Interstate 15.

But even as the bulldozers are at long last rolling in Rancho Penasquitos
on the first part of the project that will connect east and west, more and
more funding and legal roadblocks are appearing, threatening to hold I-5
and I-15 commuters hostage for another decade.

The latest funding assault is coming from Coastal Commission staff, which
before the last commission hearing demanded storm runoff mitigation extras
that would boost the current $110 million bill by another $10 million to
$30 million.

And no, they are not telling us where the extra money will come from. Even
if the commissioners approve a less onerous list of storm runoff
obligations at the next hearing, there is every reason to worry that their
decision will meet with the same legal challenges that are occurring up and
down California based on last year's Bolsa Chica court decision.

That decision limited the commission's flexibility to allow trade-offs, or
mitigation, for projects impacting wetlands and environmentally sensitive
areas. These trade-offs allowed projects like Route 56 to be built as long
as they contributed more, either on-site or off-site, to improving wetlands
and environmentally sensitive areas than they impacted.

Less than half an acre of Route 56 construction is in such an area, yet the
same restrictive regulations that face projects with bigger impacts could
apply. Worse, the land needed to complete the critical northbound
connectors at I-5 is also smack dab in the middle of one, too.

No matter what the Coastal Commission does, the Bolsa Chica decision stands
as a credible legal blueprint to challenge its decision.

Another serious potential legal and funding roadblock is a dispute with
property owners over how much the city should pay for the land in the
right-of-way. The city contends that land needed for Route 56 should be
based on valuations made prior to a 1998 public vote that changed the
zoning from agricultural to urbanized.

Property owners who stand to make five times as much from seeing the world
post-1998, will likely point to the ballot measure that created the rezone
and say the people approved it, let them pay for it as well. And likely,
that fight will occur in front of a judge.

Girding for the very real threat of all these added costs, Caltrans
officials reportedly are going to ask for an additional $30 million in the
very near future.

It's time for a dose of sanity and a lot of leadership. And so we make the
following plea:

To our environmental advocacy friends: While up and down the state, you are
suing on the basis of the Bolsa Chica decision, give Route 56 a break.
Environmentalists testified before the San Diego City Council in 1997 in
favor of the current alignment that avoided the most environmentally
sensitive part of the Multiple Species Habitat planning area, saving
Penasquitos Canyon and the entire MSCP plan. In doing so, we also added
miles and money. Let's honor our agreements and let this freeway get
finished.

To our governor: Commit to funding this freeway and the northbound
connectors in your new transportation funding plan. While on your visit
here, you gave millions to trolleys and ferries, but Route 56 got nothing.
And, if the Coastal Commission, or any other state agency, adds costs, then
give us the money to cover those requirements, as well.

To our Assembly representatives: Get Route 56 onto the governor's radar
screen. (And if it is not on yours, get it there, too.) That means fixing
the impacts of Bolsa Chica on public projects in the coastal zone and
putting funding for Route 56 into the governor's transportation plan before
you support it.

To our Coastal Commissioners: Although project after project that you
approve are facing lawsuits because of the Bolsa Chica decision, don't
saddle Route 56 with untested and expensive conditions that will delay
completion for another 10 years.

The people of San Diego need Route 56. They have been held hostage too long
by too many demands. It's time to end the hostilities. Everyone drop your
weapons, raise your white flag of truce, and let's stop any more Route 56
delays.