By Joe Tash
On a night when they could have watched the San Diego Chargers play their first game of the season on national television, some 200 North County residents chose instead to attend a town hall meeting in Encinitas organized by opponents of a plan to widen Interstate 5 from La Jolla to Oceanside.
The meeting was one of several planned up and down the North County coast by three groups fighting the multi-billion freeway expansion project.
A recent meeting held in Solana Beach reportedly drew more than 300 people, and other meetings are planned in Carlsbad and Oceanside, organizers said.
At Monday night's meeting, the audience listened to presentations by a series of speakers, then had a chance to come up to a microphone set up near the front of the hall at the Encinitas Community and Senior Center and ask questions of their own.
The opponents' meetings are a counterpoint to a series of meetings held in recent weeks by the California Department of Transportation, one of the two lead agencies on the highway project. Earlier this summer, Caltrans released a draft environmental impact report on the project, and the public is able to view the report and comment until Oct. 7, a deadline that may be extended to mid-November, according to Caltrans officials.
The proposal, although still in the planning stages, has drawn heated opposition —Monday night's town hall meeting was organized by three groups, including one called Prevent Los Angeles Gridlock Usurping Environment, or PLAGUE. The other groups are Citizens Against Freeway Expansion, and the local chapter of the Sierra Club.
"Caltrans is a public agency that can be defeated. This massive and misguided project is not unstoppable," said Pam Epstein, a Sierra Club attorney.
Another speaker, Jack Hegenauer, a retired UC San Diego biochemistry professor who lives in Solana Beach, questioned a number of contentions made by Caltrans regarding the project. For example, he said, an assertion that reducing freeway congestion will lower greenhouse gas emissions generated by I-5 is "quite fraudulent."
He also said the law of "induced demand" casts doubt on whether the freeway expansion project will actually reduce traffic congestion.
"If you build a freeway they will come," Hegenauer said, meaning that the number of vehicles using the freeway will increase with its capacity. "You cannot build yourself out of congestion."
The draft environmental report studied four alternative configurations for expanding the freeway on a 27-mile stretch from La Jolla to Oceanside. All four options include the construction of four high-occupancy vehicle lanes down the center of the freeway, which is now eight lanes for most of its length. In addition, the document studies the addition of two more general purpose lanes, and the use of either concrete barriers or painted stripes to separate the HOV and general purpose lanes. A "no-build" option was also studied.
The estimated cost of the project ranges between $3.3 billion and $4.3 billion, depending on which option is selected.
Allan Kosup, Caltrans' I-5 corridor director, said the project would require the relocation of 50 and 112 homes, and 10 to 13 businesses, along its 27-mile length, again depending which option is ultimately selected. Another 171-300 properties would either be partially acquired or subject to easements, he said.
Objections raised by opponents include increased pollution, traffic and noise, construction of high, view-obstructing sound walls along large sections of the route and damage to sensitive environmental areas such as North County's lagoons.
But Kosup said the project is expected to improve water quality in some of the lagoons, as new bridges will be designed to provide better water circulation. The project will also include better pedestrian and bicycle access along the coastal route.
As for the opposition, Kosup said that any large public works project, especially along north San Diego County's scenic coastal corridor, "rightly should get a lot of public debate. It's an important decision. It's a healthy conversation."
Before the project can proceed, it will need approval by a variety of state and federal agencies, including the California Coastal Commission. Kosup said the San Diego Association of Governments, an agency overseen by elected officials from local cities and the county, will have to allocate half of the cost of the project from funds generated by a voter-approved sales tax increase. The rest of the project will be paid for by state and federal gasoline tax revenues, Kosup said.
Opponents, though, want the money spent on public transit instead of the I-5 expansion.
"The no-build alternative is substantially superior because it conserves money for public mass transit," said Lane Sharman, a Solana Beach resident and member of CAFÉ. "Let's get the traffic off I-5 with high-speed rail."