Friday, June 17, 2016

Another Trivial CEQA Environmental Suit against Highway Safety

The state and RCTC have long proposed truck lanes for SR-60 through the Badlands for safety's sake but opposition uses California's own law against it. 

Photo: Riverside County Transportation Commission

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director
riversidetransit@gmail.com


If you passed through the 60 freeway in between Moreno Valley and Beaumont, you know there is a narrow section of four lane highway that circulates its way through the Badlands Hills. As you may know SR-60 has very high truck demands with commercial rigs accounting for 16% of total traffic according to state documents. If you add it up, for every 10 vehicles, 1 or 2 of them are full-size trucks. Factor in the growth of commuter and leisure traffic passing through with the contrasting vehicle speeds between them and the trucks. Factor in lack of shoulders on each side of the road. Factor in twists and curves. There you have a recipe for a dangerous road environment and the collision stats confirm that.

Safety alone should be a valid reason that this project led by Caltrans and the Riverside County Transportation Commission must move forward regardless of what ideological spin is put out there. If there's a safety issue along our roadways backed up by hard facts, it has be addressed without question. The recent installation of "Your Speed" alert signs to control speeding and restricting truck traffic to the right lane along this segment of the 60 may have helped, but those fixes alone have not and cannot rectify the problem. The continued high accident rates are due in part of the narrow lanes, lack of shoulders, and contrasting speeds between trucks and cars. Both the truck lane and shoulders will resolve that.

Map: Riverside County Transportation Commission
You would think that a safety project like this would be fully funded and cleared for development immediately. But the state government got a nasty taste of its very own environmental law. Loud opposition yesterday filed a California Environmental Quality Act lawsuit against Caltrans as the primary respondent and the Riverside County Transportation Commission as a party in interest. You heard that correctly. Truck lane opponents used state law against the state government. The primary plantiff is the Center for Biological Diversity supported by the Sierra Club and Friends of the Northern San Jacinto Valley. Those groups see a connection of the added truck lane with a growth in the logistics and warehouse industry in the Inland Empire:

Approving yet another freeway expansion opens the door for more urban-industrial sprawl, precludes compatible land uses, and disrupts ongoing wildlife conservation efforts.
- Tom Paulek of the Friends of the Northern San Jacinto Valley.

Adding truck lanes just encourages more truck traffic into and through our region instead of utilizing and expanding rail to take more trucks off our freeways and reduce the air pollution they generate. - Tom Thornsley of Residents for a Livable Moreno Valley.

Conservation and community groups filed a lawsuit today over a Southern California freeway-expansion project designed to increase heavy truck traffic in an area threatened by massive new industrial warehouse development. The additional truck lanes would facilitate development of projects like the adjacent World Logistics Center, a sprawling 4.2 square mile warehouse complex that would add 14,000 daily truck trips, worsen already poor air quality and harm wildlife in the nearby San Jacinto Wildlife Area.
- Center for Biological Diversity Press Release

But that last statement is spin. According to government officials, the SR-60 truck lane project was in place long before the World Logistics Center proposal. Plus, the hard fact remains that the collision rates on this highway document that this highway expansion project is clearly about safety, not facilitating additional truck traffic even though the latter could be a consequence given the recent growth in logistics, procurement, and manufacturing jobs.

To be fair, if the market demands an expansion of the Class One freight rail system deeper into Moreno Valley as pointed by the opposing party, the state and feds should clear the way. By the way, the Coalition's position on Iddo Benzeevi's WLC master plan is posted on this blog. Generally speaking, we want to support the infusion of middle-class jobs the entrepreneur wants to bring in and at the same point, we want to ensure the nasty pollution doesn't come along for the ride. Moreno Valley clearly needs the jobs and its people need to breathe clean air. Both of those points are valid. Thus, we have taken a "No" position for now on WLC. But if more powerful, yet cleaner, low and non-emissions trucks do become the norm and the state government finally stops displacing transportation funds like vehicle weight fees and decides to upgrade the connecting highway corridors to sustain the increased travel demands, then WLC could be an environmentally friendly asset which everybody should back. Hopefully, the separate CEQA suit against WLC will resolve these legit issues and that's what environmental law is supposed to do.

But even though The Transit Coalition questions the warehouse master plan, I believe the SR-60 truck lane lawsuit is another example of CEQA abuse.

Confining the highway expansion within or very near the existing right-of-way is not going to destroy the California gnatcatcher, southwestern willow flycatcher, and the bell's vireo. It's a damn shame that these environmental groups cannot acknowledge that this highway has a serious safety problem and that separate truck lanes and shoulders are seriously needed to reduce the collision rates and save human lives.

The suing party spins the debate by mentioning these animals but fails to mention protection of humans travelling through the Badlands which includes passengers aboard two RTA bus routes. The current environment of SR-60 is dangerous for we humans, yet these groups are obstructing a key safety project that will improve the environment for us while ensuring sensitive wildlife habitats are preserved.

This whole CEQA situation and continued abuse of the law has to stop. It has to stop. Projects that are meant to improve the environment are the ones that often get obstructed. SR-60 must not be a dangerous environment for those passing through. The Governor and legislature need to intervene and reform CEQA to legally protect safety projects like the SR-60 truck lane and shoulder project from these disgraceful suits.

Thankfully, some reform is underway as state leaders are working to remove the legal barrier toward infill residential smart growth development. That will tackle the housing affordability crisis and thus cut down on urban sprawl, long distance commuting and pollution which will help with SR-60 traffic flow. Did the environmental groups miss that?

We need to reform the rest of CEQA and put an end to these trivial lawsuits. Human lives are now dependent on that.

1 comment:

  1. It isn't just spin to advance a frivolous suit. Adding lanes to a highway, even in the name of safety, expands capacity. The link between expanding capacity and new development is pretty well-known and with every jurisdiction in the IE tripping over themselves to get more warehouses approved, it's laughable to think that a project specifically targeted at improving truck access to the Pass area won't also be beneficial for developers looking to throw up more grey boxes. Considering that likelihood, if it's really that necessary, then RCTC should really look to implement a value capture district around the project to recoup some of the cost of improving access to those lands for the owners.

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