It is time for a change. Now is time to rein in Caltrans. Last year, an independent report—the SSTI Assessment and Recommendations , authored by the State Smart Transportation Initiative—was released. Commissioned at the behest of Governor Brown, the report found that Caltrans is stuck in an “era of [i]nter-state building” despite calls (since the 1970’s) for more multimodalism, sustainability and less reliance on auto-mobilty. The study also finds that Caltrans has not developed sufficient communications skills and procedures to either explain its own decisions or to take into account important material from communities and partners; and has not fully adapted to the multi-stakeholder environment in which it finds itself. The pattern of inadequate response to community concerns about social and environmental impacts of highway development, as well as a lack of legal accountability becomes apparent when a series of projects are looked in their entirety.
Four Caltrans projects on California’s North Coast stand as examples of this “stuck-in-the-past” project planning.
The highway “realignment” through Richardson Grove State Park seriously threatens mammoth ancient redwood trees—a fact confirmed by the 1st District Court of Appeal , which ruled in 2012 that Caltrans failed to adequately analyze the impact of its proposed project on the ancient redwoods. This should have come as no surprise to Caltrans. In 2010, by Caltrans own admission, the agency found the project, as proposed, “may cause significant adverse impacts to old growth trees in this unique natural community.” California State Parks likewise expressed concern in its comments to the Draft Environmental Assessment, “The Draft EA does not provide an assessment of the number of trees that will have their structural root zone compromised. Without such an assessment the State Parks cannot adequately assess the proposed action’s impacts on old-growth redwoods and other mature trees. Caltrans therefore must assume that the proposed action will result in significant adverse effects to old-growth redwoods and that adequate mitigation needs to be developed.” (Emphasis added.)
Caltrans initially informed the public that the purpose of project was to enhance safety and goods movement; however it changed tack during the environmental review process, and ultimately concluded that the Proposed Project is not a safety project and concluded that the economic impacts of the proposed project on Humboldt County businesses and trucking firms would be negligible.
After seven-years and three lawsuits Caltrans has rescinded its approval of the Richardson Grove Project and withdrawn its federal Finding of No Significant Impact . Now the project cannot proceed until additional environmental analysis about the impacts of the project on the environment are completed and approved by the courts.
It didn’t have to be this way. Richardson Grove is world-class state park and the ancient redwood trees it protects deserve the fullest protection under the law—and yet, Caltrans repeatedly failed to follow the law. Instead the agency and Humboldt County  advanced a public relations campaign to promote highway expansion saying that the project would be good for business and have “no significant impact,” despite the fact that to date it has not provided the public with any legitimate evidence, criteria for decision making, meaningful explanation why or analysis to substantiate that conclusion. Instead of properly analyzing viable alternatives that better reflect the needs of Californians and the environmental realities of our times, Caltrans has wasted time and money trying to prove its project is benign.
Caltrans estimates that new documentation will be available in fall 2015 and public comment will be re-opened. EPIC is committed to taking all steps to preserve Richardson Grove State Park’s old-growth redwoods and looks forward to reading and analyzing Caltrans’ next iteration of documentation.
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. Caltrans’ implementation of the Bypass has seen a laundry list of environmental permit and cultural violations including being charged with violating the U.S. Clean Water Act when erosion at the site sent pollution streaming into a protected creek and destroying a known Native American archaeological site that was supposed to be protected by law. The impact is so severe that Caltrans is required to do the largest environmental mitigation in its history to compensate. But Caltrans has had trouble meeting permit and mitigation requirements. In June 2014, Caltrans was so far behind in its environmental requirements the U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers suspended the permit and shut down most work on the bypass for more than 3-weeks. Then there was the stunning collapse of a 150-foot section of the Bypass viaduct on January 22, 2015, dumping cement and debris right into Haehl Creek! More recently Caltrans requested an additional $64.7 million in funding from the California Transportation Commission for what it calls “unforeseen issues.”
If compelled, Caltrans could implement design changes to the northern interchange such as reducing the footprint from 4-lanes to 2-lanes, which would reduce environmental impacts, damage to cultural sites and save money.
Smith River Highway 199
A highway development project planned for Highway 199 and 197 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. In response to a lawsuit by EPIC, Caltrans has agreed to reassess impacts of the highway-widening project on protected salmon and their habitat along the Wild and Scenic Smith River. A settlement agreement will keep in place a court-ordered halt of construction work until Caltrans completes consultation with the National Marine Fisheries.
Four Bridges Project
Lastly, Caltrans’ Four Bridges Project is proposing to upgrade four existing bridges along the Avenue of the Giants, a world-famous scenic drive through the ancient redwood groves of Redwood State Park. EPIC found that the agency’s initial release of the project proposal violated the California Environmental Quality Act as it failed to adequately provide the public with access to various environmental studies, which the agency relied on to justify its conclusion that the project would have no significant impact and that further study wasn’t needed.
The North Coast community deserves an honest, transparent, and open discussion about the impacts of highway development on its 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.
Yet, Caltrans has refused to be forthright with residents about the direct impacts of its highway development projects, much less been willing to engage the public in a productive manner when concerns are raised. 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 and change in culture. A major restructuring of the Caltrans is under way as a result of the SSTI Report; 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.
Last Chance Grade
Caltrans may have an opportunity to get it right with Last Chance Grade—a stretch of U.S. Highway 101 about ten miles south of Crescent City which sits precariously high above the Pacific Ocean and experiences frequent landslides due to the geological instability of the area Caltrans is in the beginning stages of planning for the Last Chance Grade Project along Highway 101 . The agency is considering possible alternatives and reroutes in an attempt to find a long-term solution for the Last Chance Grade. U.S. Congressman Huffman’s office is working to develop a stakeholder group for facilitated discussions regarding potential projects to address Last Chance Grade. This group would work to identify one or two alternatives for a project that would ensure that U.S. Highway 101 is protected from a serious failure of the roadway and environmental harms are reduced. The group’s discussions would parallel and inform the current public process Caltrans has embarked on.
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 sustainable transportation solutions for rural communities. This reform is not only the demand of citizen organizations like EPIC; it is the recommendation of one of the nation’s leading authorities on sustainable transportation. The time has arrived to rein in Caltrans.