Toll Road Rage

In response to such image problems as the state attorney general suing the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA)—thrice—regarding its plan to extend the Foothill-South (241) toll road, the TCA is hiring the PR firm of Porter Novelli to help whore the toll road to every john in the state.

Porter Novelli's greatest trick will be San Onofre State Beach. The toll road would bisect the inland portion of this state resource, national treasure and site of the legendary surfing hot spot Trestles Beach. As such, it has been easy for such groups as Sierra Club and Surfrider to drum up support from environmentalists, surf enthusiasts and campers throughout the state: all opponents of the toll road have to do is discuss the potential precedent being set (toll roads through state parks), and tree-huggers—once they've disengaged themselves from their respective trees—come running. Surfrider has raised close to $50,000 this summer alone by waving its Save Trestles banners.

“We need to be on the same playing field as our opponents,” said TCA spokesperson Lisa Telles—which is odd, because the anti-toll road groups haven't hired any PR firms. “What I meant,” responded Telles to the Weekly, “was that the Sierra Club, Surfrider, Natural Resources Defense Council, etc., are national organizations with networks throughout the state. We have focused on this issue in Orange County because the toll roads were developed to address Orange County's traffic issue. Now we find that the issue is popping up in other parts of the state, so we need the resources to respond.” In other words, the TCA needs the same statewide support its opponents enjoy; the difference is, the TCA has to pay for it—and pay.

In the past 10 years, Porter Novelli has managed to scrape together more than $50 million in government contracts; it isn't a cheap date. In light of this, the TCA has opened its heart and wallet, offering to pay Porter Novelli up to $125,000. Hourly compensation will range from $70 for interns to $400 for their Sacramento-based senior consultant. Imagine if a Porter Novelli intern worked for eight hours a day, five days a week. The firm could charge the TCA $2,800 a week. For an intern.

In the past, the folks paying Porter Novelli have included M&M Mars, Campbell Soup, Dole Food, McDonald's and the Snack Food Association. That may be why critics scoffed when Porter Novelli came up with MyPyramid for the USDA, replacing the old-school Food Pyramid that taught us all our food groups. Dr. Tim Radak of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C., wrote, “As a nutritionist, I think the result is an unsightly graphic that seems almost deliberately calculated to confuse and mislead consumers struggling with obesity, diabetes and other diet-related illnesses.” The new arrangement is an array of vertical wedges, with little indication from the graphic itself how much or little people should eat from individual groups. (It also originally advised women of childbearing age to eat the fish with the greatest amounts of mercury—swordfish and king mackerel.) But one thing was abundantly clear to Dr. Radak and any intelligent observer: “It's clearly intended to convince consumers that there are no bad foods.”

And now Porter Novelli will do its best to convince us there is no bad pavement, state park or no state park.

“I think the TCA will find it really hard to build statewide support for an Orange County toll road that'll ruin a state park,” said Brittany McKee of Friends of the Foothills, a Sierra Club coalition opposed to the 241 extension, “but it's a natural fit for us.”

Porter Novelli has offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Sacramento. On one hand, they are established in the state's four powerhouse cities, no doubt with contacts to contact and chits to call in. On the other hand, two of those cities (San Fran and LA) have already passed resolutions opposing the 241 and forbidding any city funds from going to support the project. San Diego's decision on the issue is pending.

Over on OCBlog, conservative blogger Matt Cunningham, posting as Jubal, acknowledged that Porter Novelli “has their work cut out for them on countering the myths swirling around the 241 toll road completion.” He's right that they've got a Herculean task in turning the tide of public opinion in California to the point where it can accommodate the unprecedented environmental abuse of a toll road through a state park. But he's wrong about the countering of myths. The only myths about the toll road are that it will relieve traffic and benefit the environment, that it won't disturb a Native American burial site on public land or unmitigatably damage one of California's top state parks, and that it's legal. Porter Novelli won't have a hard time because they'll be espousing those myths, not countering them.

For a very nice price, of course.

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