A tiny bird probably a California gnatcatcher sang its song from its perch in the nearby coastal scrub as conservationist David Hogan set off on his tour of an area of South San Diego County that will eventually be home to a portion of the 125 Toll Road.
Not long after Hogan's tour began with a view of the Sweetwater Valley in the community of Bonita, resident William Stewart strolled by on his way home from work as a basketball coach at Southwestern College. Stewart watches and photographs the wildlife which occasionally includes a bobcat hunting for prey from a quiet hill lookout above the Bonita Golf Course. He noted that hawks usually nest nearby, but he doubted they would return after the toll highway is completed.
He said he's already noticed changes in wildlife since the initial construction. 'There are more bunnies, because the predators are leaving," he said. That tells Stewart that Bonita is growing tame. 'It's going to cause problems, sending predators deeper and deeper [into the wildlife preserve to the east] and out of Bonita,' he said.
A red-tail hawk cruised above, scanning for dinner as Hogan hiked on toward the equestrian trails near the Bonita Golf Course. 'Notice the road doesn't go through the golf course, but through native vegetation,' Hogan said. 'Nature bats last.'
Hogan, of the Center for Biological Diversity, is among a small army of environmentalists and other critics of the 125 Toll Road, which, when it's completed in three years or so, will span from Highway 54 to the Mexican border.
Two weeks ago, a coalition of environmental groups dropped its lawsuit against several government agencies over the highway in exchange for various environmental concessions, paving the way for well, paving the way.
The highway will be a rare partnership between the public and private sectors. The government will build a $140 million, 1.5-mile connector, which will align the toll road with the new Highway 125 north of Highway 54 near Lemon Grove. Then, California Transportation Ventures (CTV), the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) and Caltrans will build the 9.5-mile toll road from there down through Bonita and eastern Chula Vista to Otay Mesa Road where Highway 905 is under construction. CTV will lease the highway for 35 years before turning it over to the state. CTV is expected to break ground later this year.
Supporters say the highway is needed to connect Otay Ranch, the largest planned residential development in San Diego County, to Otay Mesa, the largest remaining area of industrially zoned land. They say the increase in population drives the need for the road. SANDAG predicts the population of Chula Vista will rise to more than 275,400 by 2020, a 63 percent increase.
Opponents, on the other hand, counter that the road will hasten the increase in population by encouraging sprawl and, in the process, destroy sensitive swaths of natural habitat.
The toll road would open up the last semi-coastal frontier of South County, said Allison Rolfe, policy director for San Diego BayKeeper, a nonprofit environmental-advocacy organization. Conservationists like Hogan and Rolfe believe the toll road facilitates poor planning, but regional transportation officials say the highway is part of a plan for the area that dates back as far as the 1970s. For example, said Caltrans' Charles Stoll, formerly the project manager for the 125, Eastlake High School was built with the knowledge that the 125 would eventually be reality.
Critics are not swayed by such talk. One of them, John Hammond, a member of Preserve South Bay, a group that was among the plaintiffs in the settled lawsuit, worries about the highway's impact on the Bonita community, where he lives. Bonita's former hillside vistas 'will be nothing but freeway branches,' said Hammond, a retired Navy physicist.
Hammond blames the problem on the 'bedroom community' development of eastern Chula Vista, which doesn't offer enough jobs to satisfy the increased population. 'There are no jobs in Chula Vista, so congestion will just continue,' he said, 'confining them to commuting hell.'
Adds Preserve South Bay member Ray Ymzon, a Bonita resident since 1976, 'Eastern Chula Vista's 40,000-plus residential units development could not be completed without the toll road.
'I'm not against developing,' he said, 'but let's make it reasonable not ruin the environment and make congestion worse.'
'Chula Vista wants to be bigger, but there's a time for development to stop,' said Jim Peugh, conservation chair for the San Diego Audubon Society. But, he added, 'they'll just keep adding highways. We talk about smart growth, but never actually put our foot down. What's happening now isn't working and the 125 is part of that.'
The agencies behind development of the 125 have promised to restore endangered habitat and wildlife elsewhere in the county, but critics say such planning is fuzzy. 'Mitigation is not detailed, said Hogan. 'All they've said is the amount of land it will involve. They just want the public to trust them to do the right thing.'
And all the mitigation in the world doesn't help species like lichen crusts and other non-vascular plants, which cannot be restored, Hogan said. 'They take thousands of years to form.'
Even though a judge has determined that the project does not violate the federal Endangered Species Act, environmentalists don't believe in the integrity of the legal process.
'I don't have faith in our legal system anymore to protect endangered species,' said Cindy Burrascano, conservation chair for the California Native Plant Society. 'I always wondered how L.A. became L.A. I see it happening in my own city. What makes me really angry is that my elected officials don't seem to care.'
The endangered Otay Tar Plant is being pushed into a smaller and smaller space, she added. Since it likes heavy clay soil, it has not been able to spread and is limited to southern San Diego County.
But local lawmakers are more concerned with regional transportation and development than threatened wildlife. The 125 is a 'necessary and critical piece of transportation infrastructure for South County,' said Chula Vista Mayor Steve Padilla. 'It will increase the capacity for circulation and relieve east-west peak traffic.'
Padilla said he believes the highway will positively impact the economy and perhaps help site a university at his city's eastern flank.
Joe Yaw, a resident of the senior mobile home park on Telegraph Road, one-quarter mile from a future 125 overpass, looks forward to the toll road's arrival. 'I think it's a good idea,' he said. 'It'll relieve some pressure off Telegraph Canyon Road.'
A mechanic who works in National City, it took Yaw about six minutes to get from his home to the 805 freeway 15 years ago. Now it takes 15 to 20 minutes, he said.
Back on the tour of part of the area that will be home to the 125, Hogan expressed frustration. 'It's a lie that the road is being put in to alleviate traffic congestion or to serve some regional transportation goal,' he said. 'The reality is that the road will really only serve to open up a vast semi-rural landscape to more urban sprawl, to more gated communities.'
Hogan spent an hour searching for a cactus wren, a small bird that is listed as neither endangered nor threatened, leaving it without any governmental protection. Nevertheless, he said, 'any destruction of the San Diego cactus wren habitat will cause extinction at this point.'
Hogan finally spotted not only one but a family of three wrens, nesting in the cholla it's habitat of choice not far from the equestrian trails in Sweetwater Regional Park. 'If the cactus wren was a listed species, [the highway] wouldn't be able to go through here,' he said.
Hogan, a San Diego native, recalled a similar experience elsewhere in the area. 'I knew Torrey Pines before it was developed,' he said. 'Now when I visit there, it's like visiting a decomposed body of a loved one.'
Staying with the theme, he said his tour of the Bonita area was 'like visiting a terminally ill relative. Might be the last visit.'