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By Dr. Tod A. Burnett, President of Saddleback College
As the leading provider of higher education and training in South Orange County, Saddleback College is dedicated to student success and the health and safety of all of our 40,000 annual students and over 1,500 employees. We play an important role in the community, and we remain strongly committed to our local environment, providing valuable environmental education and training programs, implementing sustainable practices on campus and forging partnerships with environmental organizations.
I was thrilled to hear that on Nov. 10 the leaders of a coalition of a dozen environmental groups stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) announcing an historic settlement, ending their 15-year battle over how to connect the 241 Toll Road with the I-5 Freeway. This settlement paves the way for TCA to move forward in an effort to find a mobility solution to the ever-increasing traffic congestion in South Orange County.
I offer my most sincere congratulations, respect and appreciation to both sides for working toward a solution that balances our region’s transportation needs with environmental protections. This unprecedented collaboration between transportation and environmental leaders seemed impossible, but it is now a reality and all of us in South Orange County and North San Diego County will greatly benefit.
As president, I am concerned about the health and safety of thousands of students, employees and visitors that are on our campus every day. A few years ago there was an electricity blackout in our region and we were forced to evacuate the campus. The traffic backups on the I-5 and other roads around the college caused a serious problem, and it took hours for everyone to get off campus. Imagine if a more serious emergency occurred and we had to immediately evacuate the campus, not to mention if the emergency also required the evacuation of others in the area. I am also concerned about the amount of time that our students and employees spend each day in traffic on the I-5 rather than in the classroom, at work or at home with their family and friends. Because of this settlement, finding a solution that addresses the mobility challenges on I-5 will soon come to fruition.
In addition to easing traffic, I am pleased to hear that TCA agreed to eliminate any alignment of the 241 that would adversely impact the San Mateo Creek, Donna O’Neill Conservancy and San Onofre State Beach. Further, TCA committed $28 million for a conservation fund to permanently protect the San Mateo Creek and its watershed. In exchange, environmental groups agreed that they would not oppose TCA’s efforts to connect the 241 Toll Road to the I-5 Freeway as long as the alignment avoids these environmentally and culturally sensitive areas.
Over my career I’ve seen both sides of the coin. I served as a Commissioner on the City of Los Angeles Board of Public Works and subsequently worked at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Developing plans and negotiating agreements that meet the often conflicting interests of infrastructure and environment are even in the best of circumstances very challenging. It takes open, honest and collaborative dialogue in order to make progress and achieve resolution.
The South Orange County and North San Diego County communities should be thankful for the environmental coalition and TCA’s unprecedented collaboration on the 241 Toll Road. Traffic relief and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive, and we look forward to enjoying both.
Dr. Tod A. Burnett is President of Saddleback College and former Vice Chancellor of the California Community Colleges—the nation’s largest higher education system. He previously served as Director of State and Local Government Relations for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC and Commissioner on the City of Los Angeles Board of Public Works which managed most of the city’s public infrastructure and vital public safety, health, and environmental programs.