Posts Tagged ‘Highway 197/199’

Injunction Sought to Halt Unnecessary Caltrans Highway-widening Project in Remote Northwest California

Thursday, March 20th, 2014
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Photo by Scott HardingCaltrans Ignores Impacts to Smith River Canyon, Coho Salmon

EPIC along with several other conservation groups filed for a preliminary injunction in federal court today to halt construction of a Caltrans highway-widening project that would harm threatened coho salmon runs and undermine public safety along the wild and scenic Smith River Canyon in California’s remote Del Norte County. The project is aimed at widening narrow sections of highways 197 and 199 to provide access for oversized trucks. The conservation groups had challenged Caltrans’ approval of the project in federal and state court last year, for its inadequate review of the environmental impacts.

“Caltrans would have us believe allowing oversize trucks to drive faster through the tight Smith River canyon will make this scenic highway safer, yet it will do the opposite,” said Don Gillespie with Friends of Del Norte. “We are challenging this project to protect motorist safety and defend our treasured Smith River.”

Friends of Del Norte, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) seek to halt construction on the $26 million “197/199 Safe STAA Access Project.” It would increase unsafe heavy and oversized truck use on narrow roadways along the designated “wild and scenic” Smith River Canyon, negatively impacting tourism and local residents. Construction would harm habitat for coho salmon runs that the National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”) has identified as facing a high risk of extinction and core to the recovery of the species as a whole.

“The Smith River is one of California’s natural wonders as the last major undammed river in the state,” said Gary Graham Hughes, executive director of EPIC. “Our rivers are under incredible stress due to drought – this destructive highway widening project would unnecessarily put the Smith River and its salmon habitat at risk.”

“We will not let Caltrans degrade the pristine and ecologically important Smith River for its ill-advised network of routes for oversized trucks through coastal northwestern California,” said Jeff Miller with the Center for Biological Diversity. “This type of major roadwork shouldn’t occur along these narrow, rural roads and critical salmon habitat.”

Caltrans’ approval of the project did not follow the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires a full evaluation of the potential environmental impacts of a project and consideration of viable alternatives. Caltrans’ project approval also violated the Wild and Scenic River Act and the Department of Transportation Act. NMFS is named on the lawsuit for violating the Endangered Species Act by failing to properly analyze whether the project will jeopardize protected coho salmon or their habitat.

Caltrans did not properly evaluate the threat project construction poses to salmon habitat and water quality along the Smith River or safety hazards from increased truck traffic. Caltrans refused to consider alternatives besides widening the highway, adopted unsubstantiated findings about impacts and mitigation measures, and avoided looking at the cumulative impacts of numerous associated Caltrans highway-widening projects in Northern California for oversized truck access. NMFS ignored its own data, including dire warnings concerning the status of coho in the Smith River, and rubber-stamped the project without giving it anything close to a sufficient review.

Background
Highway 199 is a scenic byway along the Smith River Canyon that passes through the Six Rivers National Forest and the Smith River National Recreation Area. It provides access to Redwood national and state parks, one of only two UNESCO World Heritage sites in California. The Smith River is the only undammed river in California, with the longest stretch of designated “wild and scenic” river in the lower 48. A 1989 Caltrans report acknowledged the physical constraints of the narrow, steep and rocky Smith River Canyon and concluded that environmental concerns make Highway 199 “a poor candidate for extensive upgrading.”

Highway 197 is a 7-mile, two-lane country road that runs north to south along the lower Smith River, just northeast of Crescent City. It is a rural-residential route with 72 driveways directly entering onto the road. In order to avoid Jedediah Smith State Park at the western edge of the project, oversized trucks would divert off Highway 199 and travel along Highway 197 to the north of Crescent City to reach Highway 101.

Court challenges to the related Caltrans project through Richardson Grove on Highway 101 in Humboldt County have resulted in rulings determining that Caltrans failed to adequately analyze the potential impacts of highway development on the ancient redwoods protected in Richardson Grove State Park.

A recently released independent review of Caltrans called for sweeping reforms of the agency and cited a “culture of fear” within Caltrans when it comes to deviating from standard policies. The statewide Caltrans Watch coalition has highlighted the agency’s pervasive refusal to consider reasonable alternatives to massive highway projects, shoddy environmental review, lack of transparency, reliance on flawed data and disregard for public input.

The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys Stuart Gross and Sharon Duggan, and the nationally recognized firm of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy.

Motion for Prelimiary Injunction

Click here to view EPIC Press Release

Click here to learn more about EPIC’s work on the Smith River project.


Public Action has Exposed Caltrans Need for Reform

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014
By

RGRoadnoTruckOriginally published in the Eureka Times-Standard.

Caltrans is seriously out of step with the times, with the needs of the state of California, and with the North Coast community. EPIC has been voicing this criticism of Caltrans since we first rose to the defense of the ancient redwoods of Richardson Grove. Now an independent study has come to that same conclusion.

The independent report, the SSTI Assessment and Recommendations, commissioned by Governor Brown and authored by the State Smart Transportation Initiative, was released in January 2014. The study finds that Caltrans is stuck in a car-centric culture, perpetually looking to build bigger, faster highways at a moment in history in which Californians are becoming acutely aware of the true financial and ecological costs of addiction to an outdated transportation model. The study also finds fault with the pattern of inadequate response to community concerns about social and environmental impacts of highway development, as well as a “culture of fear” within the agency.

Three Caltrans projects on California’s North Coast stand as examples of this “stuck-in-the-past” project planning.

The Willits Bypass is draining 90 acres of precious wetlands for a giant interchange made for a four-lane freeway that will do little to relieve local congestion. The argument for the need for the Bypass is based on traffic studies from decades ago. Caltrans implementation of the Bypass has been a circus of permit violations, spiced with the destruction of a cultural site, and clouded by an underfunded and unproven mitigation plan.

The highway “realignment” through Richardson Grove State Park seriously threatens mammoth ancient redwood trees, a fact confirmed by the state court of appeal, which recently ruled that Caltrans failed to adequately analyze the impact of their proposed project on the ancient redwoods. Incredibly, instead of designing alternatives and doing an in-depth environmental review that better reflect the desires of Californians and the environmental realities of our times, Caltrans wastes time and tax-payer money disregarding the intent of the courts by arrogantly steamrolling forward with the project. This “bully” behavior confirms the independent review conclusion that Caltrans is oblivious to the concerns of the public while unabashedly promoting environmentally damaging projects.

A related highway development project planned for Highway 199 in the northwestern-most corner of California poses direct and indirect threats to our redwood parks and the unparalleled salmon habitat of the wild Smith River in Del Norte County. EPIC has taken legal action in state and federal court to defend the Smith from this irresponsible highway development.

Our North Coast community deserves an honest, transparent, and open discussion about the impacts of highway development on our irreplaceable natural treasures, and about the costs and the benefits of this infrastructure development. This discussion must include recognizing the viability of alternatives that will meet needs for goods movement and transportation, as well as protect the rare and sensitive environments that make Northwest California such a special place. The imperative for Caltrans to respond positively to the demands of our community is emphasized by the successful efforts to challenge the agency in court, and by the independent review recommending serious reform of the agency.

Yet, Caltrans has refused to be forthright with residents about the direct impacts of their highway development projects, much less been willing to engage the public in a productive manner when concerns are raised, or even when the courts rule against the agency. In the absence of credible leadership by Caltrans, EPIC has challenged the legality of these projects with the immediate intent of protecting rare and sensitive environments, and with the long-term goal of leveraging successful court action into political momentum that will lead to a serious reform of the agency. A major restructuring of the California Department of Transportation is already under way; the question remains whether the recommendations of the independent review combined with the reality check of the court orders will be sufficient impetus to bring Caltrans out of the past.

There is no question that Caltrans needs significant reform to bring it into step with best practices in the transportation field, with the state of California’s policy expectations, and the true needs of North Coast residents. While the lawsuits are effective for enforcing the law, they do not permanently stop projects, and reform is what will lead to viable transportation solutions for our rural communities. This reform is not only the demand of citizen organizations from around the state; it is the recommendation of one of the nation’s leading authorities on sustainable transportation. The time has arrived to rein in Caltrans.