Trestles Saved

Really, two bottles of champagne just doesn't seem enough for such a victory. But for Surfrider's Marketing and Communications Director Matt McClain, it's pretty damn sweet. Around 10 a.m. this morning (Thursday) the U.S. Commerce Secretary sided with the California Coastal Commission's (CCC) decision to reject the proposed Foothill South toll road. The toll road, as you probably know, would have run through the San Onofre state park, adding unsightly concrete, pollution and ultimately greedy development to one of Orange County's last pristine coastal environments.

"We'd been expecting a decision for the last couple of weeks because we knew a ruling had to be made before the end of the year," says McClain. "Then we heard through the grapevine yesterday that the news would come this morning." And sure enough, it did — victory and all. "We cracked a couple of bottles and had a quick toast to everyone's hard work."

The battle, which has gone on for the better part of 10 years and has involved thousands of man hours and volunteers, gained some serious momentum back in February of this year when the Surfrider Foundation, it's coalition partners and 3,500 protestors appeared before the CCC at the Del Mar Fairgrounds to do battle with the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA), the organization pushing for the toll road. Late that evening, the CCC ruled that the proposed toll road extension was inconsistent with California Coastal law and that it would not be built.

Victory appeared to be on the horizon, but the TCA begged to differ. Immediately following what was Surfrider's biggest rally in history, the TCA appealed to the Commerce Secretary in Washington and so came the second coming of some serious heat. In September, NOAA officials appeared on behalf of the Commerce Secretary back at the Del Mar fairgrounds and once again listened to both sides of the story. So with plenty of shouting and booing and thumbs up and thumbs down broiling in their heads, the officials headed back to Washington to deliver their findings.

And then today champagne popped at Surfrider and coalition headquarters throughout Southern California and TCA mongrels cried like little babies (we're guessing). But, like McClain says, the battle never ends. "The TCA still has some options. I mean, they can appeal this decision through the court system," he says, "but the problem is that the chances of getting this decision overturned is very slight — maybe even slim to none."

So when the bottles are empty, what do we do? "Bear in mind," McClain continues, "that the Surfrider Foundation and its coalition partners still have three existing pieces of litigation against the project: Two lawsuits involving the CEQA (California Environmental Qualities Act) and one lawsuit involving the biological findings of the California Fish and Game."

On the surface, it seems the economic downturn was a deciding factor in the Commerce Secretary's decision. "I'm sure that's what the TCA is gonna use as cover," say McClain. "But what it comes down to is that the plan to build this road was so poorly done that even a Bush appointee found that this is a bad idea — and that's saying something."

True enough, but according to an online news article put out by this morning, money's definitely an issue. According to the article toll road authorities will move forward with their appeal of the CCC's decision before the U.S. Commerce Department next month. But in these days of credit crunch and economic hell, moving forward with the toll road project would mean that the cost of the $1.1 billion {{{loan}}} from the U.S. Transportation Department that they're seeking to refinance $4.24 billon of bond debt would likely increase. Needless to say, the government wants nothing to do with another billion dollars worth of debt.

"We're just going to continue to call upon the TCA and our state and local officials to start embracing alternative strategies to deal with the traffic while still being supportive of our recreational and economic assets," says McClain. "We're really going to be pushing these guys (the TCA and toll road supporters) to throw in the towel and move forward in another direction."

But for now — just for a couple of hours, at least — everyone's gonna celebrate. "I would put this victory near the top, if not the top," McClain continues. "This is one of those campaigns that really underscore and serve to illustrate the effectiveness of grassroots activism. It's something where guys like you and I that sometimes get cynical and say we can't do anything about it actually can do something. We did, and this is the best example of it."

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