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Coastal panel OKs North Coast Corridor project

The California Coastal Commission on Aug. 13 approved Caltrans' $6 billion North Coast Corridor project to improve environmental stability, along a stretch of Interstate 5 in northern San Diego County, and expand transportation options.

The 40-year project will expand I-5 by two express lanes in each direction, from La Jolla Village Drive in San Diego to Vandegrift Boulevard in Oceanside.

It also includes nearly $1 billion in improvements along the San Diego segment of the San Diego-Los Angeles-San Luis Obispo rail corridor over the next 20 years, and $200 million in projects for coastal habitats.

Projects include creating several hundred acres of preserved coastal habitat, improving the health of six coastal lagoons and better beach access.

Plans call for completing and enhancing bicycle trail connections that are now segmented by I-5 and the roughly parallel rail lines.

The 27-mile North Coast Bike Trail will close east-west gaps to improve pedestrian and bike access to the beach.

Commissioner Greg Cox and others called the public works plan an unprecedented collaboration of state and local agencies, as well as the University of California San Diego.

The panel unanimously approved the plan at its meeting at the Catamaran Resort near Mission Bay.

The plan has received criticism from groups such as the Cleveland National Forest Foundation, which says additional I-5 express lanes are unnecessary.

The foundation generally supports the transit improvements, such as the double-tracking of rail lines along the corridor, but said the lane addition diverts from a focus on transit and rail necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Some commissioners agreed with opponents on the focus, but said the plan balances concerns and needs based on reality.

"I agree wholeheartedly that the solution to California's problems cannot be freeways alone," Commissioner Dayna Bochco said. "But I think that's going to take a will of the people that we haven't seen yet."

Bochco said "car-breaking" the public will be difficult in a spread-out city like San Diego, as it is in Los Angeles.

She said she's not convinced that a plan eliminating highway projects entirely would work, but that the North Coast Corridor project's mix of large-scale rail improvement, bus rapid transit and bike path additions -- along with widening the freeway -- is a proper foundation for changing habits.

"I think this is a very good start," Bochco said.

The Coastal Commission also unanimously certified that the project's transportation and resource enhancement program is consistent with federal requirements.

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