Tunnel Vision

Irvine Co. bazillionaire owner Don Bren likes all kinds of things in life—fine art, skiing, beige stucco houses with Spanish tile roofs and 5-0 development approvals from the Orange County Board of Supervisors. He even likes the sprawling housing and commercial uses that will make up much of Irvine's plan for the old El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

But one thing Bren absolutely does not like is former Irvine mayor Bill Vardoulis' plan for a 12-mile tunnel beneath the Cleveland National Forest. The tunnel—actually three 40-foot-diameter tunnels—would cost $3 billion and allow car and truck traffic to move from Orange County to Riverside in just 15 minutes. The tunnels would also carry rail traffic, water pipes, high-voltage transmission cables and oil.

Several Riverside and Orange County officials have already lined up to support the tunnel. Congressmen Chris Cox (R-Newport Beach) and Ken Calvert (R-Riverside) love it. Even the Orange County Regional Airport Authority (OCRAA)—made up of officials from more than a dozen North County cities that spent years pushing for a commercial airport at El Toro—is “extremely impressed with the innovative proposal.”

“We are facing a fiscal crisis in California today, and we will be confronted with a mobility crisis in Orange County within seven years if we don't take action soon,” OCRAA executive director Jack Wagner wrote in a May 16 press release headlined “OCRAA UNANIMOUSLY SUPPORTS TRITUNNEL EXPRESS UNDER CLEVELAND NATIONAL FOREST.” “It's time to expedite the study and approval process and implement transportation solutions that make sense,” he continued.

Bren and his Irvine Co. believe otherwise. Irvine Co. officials refused to return repeated calls for comment. But they've criticized the project in numerous press accounts and they've showered Vardoulis with objections from a variety of angles.

“I've had a lot of meetings with the Irvine Co.,” concedes Vardoulis, president of Irvine-based BV Engineering. “We're trying to keep an open dialogue, but they've pretty much indicated that they will never support what I'm doing.”

The Irvine Co.'s biggest objection—shared by the Sierra Club—has been that the tunnel would disrupt and invade sensitive open space and habitat that currently sits on or near Irvine Co. land.

“It's a very compelling argument,” Vardoulis said. “But I want us to look at the alternatives that don't impact their lands.” He says he has already drafted “some new alignments” that won't run beneath protected open space donated to the county by the Irvine Co. “This isn't something that can't be solved.”

Irvine Co. officials also told Vardoulis that the tunnel would serve no purpose. “They've said that trips from the Inland Empire on the 91 [freeway] are to Anaheim, Long Beach and LA,” he said. “But the data doesn't show that at all.”

Vardoulis also listened to Irvine Co. officials compare his tunnel idea to the notorious Boston Dig—an 18-year, $15 billion project headed by the Bechtel Group to bury all of Boston's freeways underground. Already $1.1 billion over budget, the project won't be completed until 2005 at the earliest.

“That's not really a tunnel,” said Vardoulis. “It's 'cut and cover.' But it's nothing like what I'm planning. If my tunnel can't be funded privately [through bonds], it won't be done.”

Irvine Co. officials, despite their insistence that no one from the Inland Empire heads into South County, maintain that any tunnel Vardoulis designs would have to run through Trabuco Canyon or near Ortega Highway.

“That isn't true,” Vardoulis said. “You do far more damage to the environment if you go that way.”

Speculation from at least one longtime Orange County analyst is that the tunnel scares Bren. By closing the gap between Orange and Riverside counties, the tunnel would increase housing values in the Inland Empire at the expense of the thousands of homes Bren is building in East Orange. Irvine Co. officials deny this.

Instead of Vardoulis' tunnel, Irvine Co. officials want a 10-mile freeway built from I-15 to the 241 Toll Road along or atop railroad tracks. The new freeway would run through Santa Ana Canyon.

“Trying to cram more trips through the canyon will just increase air pollution in that already very polluted area,” said Vardoulis. “But if the tunnel is done right we can eliminate just about all the pollutants we generally get from a new road. I feel we can do it without having stacks coming through the mountains.

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