Back Country Coalition files suit against State Route 94 passing lanes

Caltrans tries to pull a fast one and avoid environmental review.

provided by Back Country Coalition

he Back Country Coalition (BCC), a nonprofit citizens' association, has filed suit in Superior Court challenging Caltrans' illegal approval of a negative declaration for the State Route 94 Passing Lanes project. The suit asserts that the project is in blatant violation of requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The petition asks the Court to set aside Caltrans' approval of an illegal document, and required them to prepare and circulate for public review and comment a new, legally adequate negative declaration or a legally adequate environmental impact report. These steps must be done prior to any subsequent reconsideration or approval of the Project by Caltrans. The petition reveals both major procedural defects and substantive deficiencies with the Project.

Caltrans released an Initial Study/Environmental Assessment (IS/EA) for public review and comment in July, 1997. The IS/EA indicated that a negative declaration was the appropriate environmental document for the Project, which would include mitigations for environmental impacts. There were many comment letters on the IS/EA, including BCC's, which made fair argument for significant, immitigable environmental impacts. Those arguments require the preparation of an environmental impact report rather than a negative declaration.

Either document should have been circulated for public review and comment as a DRAFT, which Caltrans has failed to do. Instead, Caltrans filed the document with the State Clearinghouse on June 5 as a FINAL negative declaration, allowing no public review or comment, omitting significant new information and ignoring changed circumstances since the IS/EA was issued in 1997. Caltrans added 14 pages and hundreds of lines of revised text to the document.

BCC's attorney, Courtney Ann Coyle, stated, "Caltrans obviously is trying to keep the public from participating in the environmental review for the project. There are new environmental studies and a new accident report mentioned in the negative declaration which are public records, paid for with public dollars that Caltrans has refused to divulge. Caltrans' premature approval of the Project shows they don't want any significant new information to be entered into the administrative record. This is the largest project to date in SR 94's 70 years of existence and the public is being denied its rightful participation in its planning."


Safety smoke screen


Caltrans has continually said that this project is being proposed for public safety. Yet, that agency's own documents show that accident rates on SR 94 for recent years have declined by fifty percent. Bonnie Gendron, BCC's Coordinator, commented, "Caltrans says that this project is one of its 'highest safety priority projects,' yet a 1992 UMA Engineering report, relied on by Caltrans, indicates that these passing lanes are, in fact, NOT listed as the highest safety priority. One of the project's lanes is not even on the list. Also, the California Transportation Commission (CTC) reveals that the passing lanes are chosen for the cheapest locations, not those with the highest safety concerns." Gendron adds, "Caltrans' own Route Concept Report for SR 94 (Jan. '91) says that SR 94, from Otay Lakes Road to SR 188, is inadequate for use by 30-foot commercial trucks, kingpin-to-rear axle. If Caltrans is concerned about public safety, why hasn't it made a good faith effort to implement the Board of Supervisors' unanimous recommendation to restrict truck lengths on rural SR 94 to 38 feet? Safety is Caltrans' smoke screen to push this project through illegally."

"They're trying to build a four- to six-lane highway on rural 94, segment by segment," said Karen Rodgers, BCC's Administrator. "Caltrans has as much as admitted they are trying to avoid doing an EIR because the necessary mitigation requirements would be too great and they don't have the funding for the buildout," she adds. "In fact, the CTC says the state has better places to spend the $400+ million. So Caltrans is illegally piecemealing their planned highway, trying to do it without public review and getting funding for segments under the guise of 'Safety and Operational' needs. Eventual buildout of rural 94 will make a few contractors rich but will cost hundreds of millions of public dollars with no EIR or comprehensive plan having ever been prepared." Rodgers continued, "Building this project may destroy SR 94's prospects for State Scenic Highway designation. Because the project's 'mitigations' are so minimal, SR 94 would no longer qualify as scenic - by Caltrans' own guidelines - if this project is implemented."

  Back Country Coalition, P.O. Box 686, Campo, CA 91906; (619) 445-4067 (phone/fax).