Mid County Parkway Lawsuit Madness

More environmental questions are raised as RCTC gets hit with another CEQA suit.

Mid County Parkway Preferred Alternative
Graphic - RCTC

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Some big-name environmental activist groups including the Sierra Club have filed a California Environmental Quality Act lawsuit against the Riverside County Transportation Commission in an effort to obstruct the development of a six-lane highway infrastructure project between the I-215 and the Hemet/San Jacinto region.

The Mid-County Parkway can be defined as a high speed limited access freeway and is basically an expressway-to-freeway upgrade of the existing four lane Ramona Expressway corridor between Lake Perris and northwest San Jacinto as defined in the Caltrans Highway Design Manual. The segment between I-215 and Lake Perris is proposed to be a new right-of-way which would require major property acquisition in the area of Placentia Avenue.

Fact-based Viewpoints

My analysis of the Mid County Parkway project is going to be different than what the suing activist groups are arguing. The Transit Coalition is not here to obstruct projects over ideological matters. We are a fact-based group that does not pander to any ideological or political agenda. If there is a solid, fact-based concern backed up by hard evidence, those points need to be heard and considered in the debate and officials must not stonewall them.

One of the reasons why decision making politicians, the media, government staff, and other top individuals follow The Transit Coalition is because we provide an independent and fair analysis on transportation-related matters. We don't jump on the bandwagon of fear-tactics or political ideology. People respect us because we are not affiliated with any public or private entity or political party. We look for the best in you and your free mobility by promoting fair and non-divisive solutions to problems.

That's why we don't take too many hard "Yes" or "No" positions on proposals. I try to provide a fair and unifying solution.

With that said, let's get back to the Parkway.

A Straight-Analysis of the Mid County Parkway and the Environment

Burrowing Owl 4212
The burrowing owl, regional growth, and transit mobility can coexist.
© Wikimedia/Dori CC BY-SA
While I'm not a fan of this project, I really don't think that widening the Ramona Expressway by one lane and grade separating the intersections would cause grave damage to the surrounding wildlife corridors in of itself simply because the vast majority of the project would run along an existing transportation corridor.

I don't think the Least Bell’s vireo, the burrowing owl and Los Angeles pocket mouse will become endangered or extinct if the project stayed within the existing transportation corridor or already developed areas. Nor do I believe that ecosystems would be gravely damaged.

However, I am concerned that the good people within the San Jacinto and Hemet Valley region may get a dose of dirtier air if both the highway and bad land use policies contribute further to our serious problem of long distance commuting.

This lawsuit could bring in the hard facts to confirm whether or not the valley's smog levels will increase with the presence of a freeway relative to current general plan zoning rules.

AirNow Air Quality Index Map dated 8/9/14
With the San Jacinto Mountains to the east, this valley has no outlet for the on-shore flow and any additional pollution that flows in from the highway will get blown in and remain in the region which could result in dirtier air during the afternoon and evening periods during the summer months. Yes, cars are becoming cleaner each year, but we have no solid promise that zero-emissions cars will be the norm by the time the Parkway is finished and opened.

That means the suing party should put this issue front and center during their case so we can get solid data and facts into this debate and see whether or not this legit concern holds water.

If so, the plaintiff needs to hold the deciding jurisdictions to account if RCTC builds the highway. That is what environmental law is supposed to do. We need to be able to breathe clean air.

If the increased smog levels can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and if the cities and County of Riverside want the Mid County Parkway project to continue, they would need to commit to finally zone the region which balances the job-to-housing ratio and encourages business investments here at home. That solution would offset increased pollution relative to the Parkway because more people would work in their home cities and long distance commuting would be reduced, not increased.

More on that in a moment...

Property Acquisition

Also, the residential property acquisition issue between the I-215 and Lake Perris may be fairly legit too even though it may have nothing to do with the environment.

I think this proposed segment should have continued to follow the existing Ramona Expressway right-of-way since this portion is already a six-lane expressway to minimize residential displacement; however the decision has been made to route this segment near Placentia Avenue where there is existing development. Comparing this issue to CEQA, because Placentia Avenue is already partially developed, I don't foresee any harm to any sensitive ecosystems for this alignment either. However, I think the residential displacement remains a valid concern and Perris officials should hear out and reflect their people's views in this area.

Regarding infrastructure costs: Is the region ready for a massive $1.7 billion project or can the master-plan be phased in as the regions and local economy grows? The opposition correctly pointed that $1.7 billion is a lot of money and there are several other transit corridors that warrant priority funding.

As suggested by the opposing parties, would it be better to start with a third lane along the Ramona Expressway, fund a direct RTA CommuterLink transit line between Hemet and Corona, develop a center divider, and keep the intersections at grade much like the SR-79 corridor as a first step?

Could the grade separations, bicycle pathways, future carpool lane and park & ride facilities be integrated into the corridor at a future time when industries and jobs do expand in San Jacinto with the increased local transportation revenues?

Regarding the freeway with urban sprawl argument--which may be another legit supporting point from the opposition--RCTC has very little control over land use other than providing the transportation infrastructure.

Yes, highway expansion does stimulate development activity. But our long history of broken job-to-housing ratios and bad social conditions in many Los Angeles neighborhoods also contributes to urban sprawl and long distance commuting.

RCTC should not have to bear responsibility of what development goes where through a CEQA lawsuit. The local jurisdictions are the ones that need to be held accountable and each of them should plan accordingly so that development caused by transportation infrastructure expansion does not go unchecked. Furthermore, the public should absolutely not tolerate any home developer pandering. You may remember from last decade, the City of Murrieta pandered to home developers and voters reacted by recalling members of the City Council. The City now has become a very business-friendly area with small business investments and job growth taking place on its western side.

Managing Growth and Controlling Smog along the Mid County Parkway and Cajalco Road Corridors

Coalition Concept: Managed growth along the Mid County Parkway corridor
Note: Concept only. Not endorsed by RCTC or any other public or private entity.

The County of Riverside, Perris, Hemet and San Jacinto should all work together, integrate their general plans with the Mid County Parkway project so that the job-to-housing ratio in this area can be balanced. That needs to happen so that we don't end up with loads of bedroom communities along the central and the eastern end of the Mid County Parkway with the majority of jobs to the west--That would for sure exacerbate traffic congestion on the I-215 and potentially lead to more pollution on the eastern end of the corridor. The local jurisdictions need to be held accountable on this matter, not RCTC.

Concept: Open space growth design near Mid County Parkway
Note: Not endorsed by any public or private entity.
A sustainable land use policy that would prevent the San Jacinto Valley from being mired with dirtier air and increased congestion on I-215 is for the cities and county to zone the land to improve the existing housing infrastructure and social conditions in north and central Perris areas while expanding the job market and improving college and university infrastructure in the west Moreno Valley and San Jacinto/Hemet Valley regions. That would prevent the highway from exacerbating the region's unbalanced job-to-housing ratio, reduce long distance commuting and traffic congestion, and thus cut down on smog being blown east into San Jacinto.

The suing party has a golden opportunity here to deal with this situation.

Another Transportation Lawsuit Begins...

Meanwhile as this case unfolds, there will be quite a bit of trivial discussions taking place in the court of law soon in the name of the environment. The Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society, Friends of the Northern San Jacinto Valley and Friends of Riverside’s Hills want the $1.7 billion Mid County Parkway project halted and are using CEQA as a means to get its case through the court of law. And you and I are basically the ones paying for this case. I hope the points that I brought up here are presented.

More often than not, these suits and their settlements can lead to big cash sums going to the lawyer lobby and special interests. The 2013 Perris Valley Line lawsuit settlement was a clear example of that although to be fair, some of the settlement money went to legit purposes that benefits the public at large.

Moving forward, we need to find a common ground on this issue. The good people of San Jacinto and Hemet must have cleaner air. The beautiful hillside and Lake Perris ecosystems must be protected. Land use plans must not exacerbate the long distance commuting problem here at home. Residential displacement needs to be minimized. San Jacinto and Hemet are long overdue for an improved economy, job market, and better social conditions. The existing Ramona Expressway corridor and right-of-way needs to offer efficient, multi-modal transit mobility options as the region grows without breaking the bank.

This must all be resolved and settled soon with We the People--not the lawyer or special interest lobby--being the primary beneficiaries.