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Friday, Oct. 24, 2008 | When I arrived at the Del Mar Fairgrounds last month for Del Mar II — the second massive public hearing on the fate of the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) proposed 241-toll road that would permanently disfigure San Onofre Beach State Park — I was hopeful. According to Joel Reynolds, Senior Attorney and Southern California Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the hearing was, “Only the latest chapter in a long-term war against the toll road — one of the most destructive projects in the recent history of the California coast.”
Little did I know that not only might the private toll be approved by the feds but that U.S. taxpayers might help pay for the project.
As soon as I entered the cavernous hall the hearing took place in on the morning of Sept. 22, a space suitable for livestock exhibitions that felt like the inside of a steam bath, I realized that the fix was in. The hearing was a Bush administration show-trial, presided over by Jane Luxton, general counsel for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (whose role as judge and jury involved calling up speakers, enforcing an arcane list of invented rules, and maintaining a waxy smile for more than 10 hours of public testimony). Red-shirted private security guards enforced Luxton’s ad-hoc rules. They even threatened to eject my two sons ages 10 and 12 for carrying a homemade sign that was apparently a few inches too large.
The two anonymous aides that shared the dais with Luxton could have been transferees from the Minerals Management Service or just lottery-picks from the offices of NOAA (“free trip to San Diego — see Jane”). Or they might have been interns fresh out of Bob Jones University. This almost surreal atmosphere caused Surfrider CEO Jim Moriarty to tell me as we took a mid-day fresh air break, “I just hope they don’t put the testimony into a report somewhere and make the decision they already planned on making.”
My own doubts about the validity of the hearing and the entire process were reinforced by my own experience presenting to Luxton et al. I had asked seven young surfers or groms from Imperial Beach to accompany me to the speaker podium to demonstrate the importance of preserving San Onofre State Beach Park as healthy open space for children.
While gathering together in the speaker “staging area” to the right of the podium, an agitated bouncer informed me that the groms were verboten. I informed him that NOAA officials had approved their presence (none of the hearing rules made any mention of a prohibition on kids). The guard ignored me and ordered the children to stand down.
After I politely declined his request, the agitated guard rushed over to the NOAA officials and argued that I was in violation of rules he had invented at that very moment. After the NOAA staff calmed the guard down, I was able to speak while the young activists stood silently behind me.
In theory, Luxton and her aides will review the testimony from the hearing, sort through the 35,000 public comments that have already been sent to Washington D.C. and then advise Commerce Secretary Carlo Gutierrez (the former CEO of Kellogg), on the most appropriate course of action. Since the hearing, anti toll road activists have learned that the TCA has decided to up the ante on its “private-sector” project and request the same type of federal bailout that the financial sector has recently received. In June, the TCA requested a $1.1 billion loan from the U.S. Department of Transportation to consolidate $4.6 billion in debt.
On Oct. 7, Senator Barbara Boxer wrote a letter to Secretary of Transportation Mary Peter expressing her concern about the loan application. In the letter, she argued that the program that would finance the loan, the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, was not meant to “stabilize the finances of… existing toll roads.”
If Gutierrez approves the toll road and the Secretary of Transportation issues a loan to the TCA, environmental groups are ready to continue their “Save San Onofre” campaign. According to Reynolds of NRDC, “If the Bush Administration overrules the California Coastal Commission, we will take them to court — and we will win.”
Given the groundswell of public opinion against the new road to nowhere and the thousands of activists against the toll road who showed up for Del Mar II, it would be hard for the U.S. Department of Commerce to overturn the California Coastal Commission’s decisive February rejection of the toll road plan. I can only hope that the tattered blueprints for the toll road to nowhere will end up abandoned in a desk drawer in an empty office in Washington D.C. after President Bush and his cronies, who have devastated our nation’s economy and our natural environment depart for Texas.