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.
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.