Highway Opponents Fail to Interrupt Calif.'s Plan


     (CN) - A proposed four-lane freeway in Mendocino County, Calif., can move forward after a federal judge found no need for the preparation of a supplemental environmental impact statement.
     The Center for Biological Diversity and others had sued the Federal Highway Administration, the California Department of Transportation and the Army Corps of Engineers in May 2012, alleging violations of the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
     While the two sides agree that some form of highway bypass is necessary near Willits, Calif., they dispute whether the bypass should be made up of two or four lanes.
     The environmentalists claimed that phased construction and certain changes made to the proposed four-lane bypass around the community of Willitis, Calif., will heavily affect rare plants and species of fish and to agricultural land. They also said it will cause greater destruction of wetlands.
     Caltrans said that it had investigated a two-lane bypass but determined that it would not meet the needs of the project, whereas the 6-mile, four-lane addition would reduce delays, improve safety and streamline service on Highway 101.
     The first phase of the project, which has been under construction since January 2013, is intended to complete a two-lane bypass. The remaining two lanes will be built as funding becomes available.
     After issuing its final environmental impact statement, Caltrans made design changes to the project and prepared two re-evaluations to examine those changes and their potential impacts. Caltrans ultimately decided that the changes did not require it to issue a supplemental environmental impact statement.
     The environmentalists claim that the changes require an additional environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act.
     U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White granted the defendants summary judgment in an unpublished opinion Thursday.
     He said the environmental groups "appear to take the position that any additional impacts must be significant and, thus, Caltrans was required to prepare a Supplemental EIS. The Court is not persuaded,"
     Caltrans' re-evaluations of impacts to rare plants, wetlands and agricultural land in the area found that changes to the project did not represent a major increase of impacts, according to the ruling.
     Though Caltrans noted that it would take efforts to mitigate these impacts, the plaintiffs failed to dispute these findings, or point to any evidence that the mitigation efforts would be ineffective, White said.
     The plaintiffs "may disagree with Caltrans' conclusion that the additional impacts were not significant, [but] they do not cite any evidence that suggests Caltrans' 'offer[ed] explanation' for its decision that ran 'counter to the evidence before it,'" White wrote.
     White also rejected demands for a new impact statement based on supposed impacts on three types of salmon in the area, all of which are "threatened" species under federal law.
     After consulting with Caltrans, the National Marine Fisheries Service concluded that the project would not likely jeopardize the continued existence of the salmon species or destroy their habitat, according to the ruling.
     "The court has carefully considered the administrative record, and it concludes that Caltrans took the requisite hard look at the changes to the Willits Bypass Project and the information that developed after it used the Final EIS," White wrote.
     "Accordingly, the Court concludes that Caltrans' decision not to prepare an EIS was neither arbitrary nor capricious."
     Caltrans also sufficiently explained its reasoning for needing to build a four-lane, not two-lane, bypass in obtaining a permit under the Clean Water Act from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Among other things, Caltrans cited studies that suggested the population around the project would grow, that the short-term decline of traffic was due to the economic recession and was beginning to reverse, and that traffic volume would increase over the 20-year design period.
     "Plaintiffs may disagree with these studies, but they do not point [the] court to any evidence in the record that contradicts the studies upon which Caltrans relied," White wrote. "Thus, they do not point the Court to any evidence that suggests that the Corps' decision to grant the Section 404 Permit was contrary to the evidence it had before it."