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By Shawn Raymundo
A proposed measure to have the 241 Toll Road permanently end at its current terminus made it out of the State Senate’s Transportation Committee last week, clearing a first major legislative hurdle while inching closer to a floor vote.
Lawmakers, in a 13-1 vote, moved Sen. Patricia Bates’ measure, Senate Bill 760, out of the committee on April 27. The bill, which looks to prevent the 241 from ever extending south into San Clemente, now heads to the Committee on Appropriations.
“The City of San Clemente is excited that SB 760 was passed by such an overwhelmingly large and bipartisan vote,” Mayor Kathy Ward said of the committee vote in a city press release.
If passed by both chambers of the California Legislature, and subsequently enacted by the governor, SB 760 would amend state law by having the toll road end where it does now, at Oso Parkway in Mission Viejo.
SB 760 is one of two pieces of legislation by Bates that both take aim at the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA), as well as the toll road operator’s hotly contested proposals to construct a 241-extension to Interstate 5 by cutting through San Clemente.
Bates’ other measure, Senate Bill 761, proposes to provide the city of San Clemente’s open space and conservation easements with further protections from the development of roads and thoroughfares.
That measure is currently sitting in the Senate’s Committee on Natural Resources and Water. A hearing on the bill was initially scheduled for April 13; however, at Bates’ request, it was canceled, according to the State Legislature.
Previous versions of both bills had first been introduced by Bates and former Assemblymember Bill Brough during the previous term. The previous iteration of SB 760 was passed by the Senate last June, but it was unable to progress in the State Assembly because priority was given to legislation addressing the pandemic.
The latest progress on SB 760 comes as the ongoing clash between the city and TCA enters a new chapter.
Despite commitments from the TCA last year to drop its consideration of a toll road extension, and instead pursue the extension of Los Patrones Parkway as a free, county-owned arterial route, a recently proposed policy has given local officials’ more reason to believe that the 241 plans were never off the table.
“Even as recently as last week, it appeared as though the TCA is still considering building a toll road through protected open space through the City, despite their vote just last year to abandon the expensive and unnecessary toll road,” Ward said in the city’s April 27 release.
More than a year ago, board directors on the Foothill/Eastern arm of the TCA, which oversees the 133, 241 and 261 Toll Roads, voted unanimously in favor of supporting the extension of Los Patrones between Cow Camp Road in Rancho Mission Viejo and the city limits at Avenida La Pata
Last month, however, a working group of Foothill/Eastern TCA board members drafted a proposed policy meant to provide future boards with guidance on initiating studies “related to improvements” on Los Patrones or “any further extension of State Route 241.”
The policy, according to the TCA’s report, outlines three “triggers” and metrics that would first need to occur before a member of the Foothill/Eastern board can request a study on Los Patrones improvements or extending the 241.
A board member citing “concerns related to increased traffic impacts on Los Patrones” or on other arterial routes counts as one trigger. A study could also be requested if the county finds that traffic on the parkway exceeds its previous projections, or if data that OCTA collects from California State University, Fullerton, shows a need for mobility improvements in South County.
The city has come out strongly against the proposed policy, with Ward accusing the TCA and the working group of drafting the policy “in secret” and “behind closed doors.” Mayor Pro Tem Gene James has called the move a “classic bait and switch.”
The TCA, in its report, has argued that the “Policy developed by the working group reaffirms the Agency’s commitment to the Board’s March 2020 decision and the underlying study data which identified mobility solutions for South Orange County.”
The Foothill/Eastern board had assembled the working group this past March, when the TCA directors voted to oppose Bates’ bills. The working group, which has met a handful of times already, was aimed resolving the ongoing dispute with the city of San Clemente.
Ward, who sits on the Foothill/Eastern TCA board, was supposed to be a member of the working group, along with other representatives from Mission Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita and San Juan Capistrano.
However, Ward previously explained, while she was invited to participate, she declined to attend over the group’s opposition to allowing James—a director on the San Joaquin Hills TCA board—to also sit in on the discussions.
“After refusing to allow our requested members to attend, they insulted the entire process by allowing one member in another city the ability to study the destruction of protected open space for an expensive, unnecessary toll road, potentially over the host city’s and County’s objections,” Ward said in a separate city press release.
Ward and James both said they’re supportive instead of the work and discussions being conducted by a separate stakeholder group that Orange County Board Supervisor Lisa Bartlett similarly assembled.
“We continue to support Supervisor Bartlett’s efforts to convene all relevant parties to draft a true solution that will protect the City of San Clemente,” Ward said in the April 20 press release.
The Foothill/Eastern TCA board held a meeting on April 22 to discuss the proposed policy. After a roughly two-hour discussion, the directors opted to have further discussions and make amendments to the policy by involving more stakeholders to provide input.
“The Board recognized that the comments shared by stakeholders indicated that the verbiage could be improved and that with the urgency of pending legislation subdued, more collaboration on the policy could and should occur,” TCA Media Relations Manager Kim Mohr explained in an email this week.
Mohr also noted that since then, the working group has invited both Ward and James to its next meeting, which is slated for Thursday, May 6.
Speaking on SB 760, James, in the April 27 press release, said that Bates’ bill “would make sure the TCA can’t go back on its word again. This bill simply affirms the TCA’s decision, making sure they can’t keep changing their mind and leaving people throughout South Orange County worried about the fate of their health and their open space.”
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.