A group dedicated to preserving wildlife habitat and scenic ocean views has filed a federal lawsuit against state and county transportation officials in an attempt to prevent them from widening Highway 1 in Pacifica.
Caltrans is overseeing the nearly $52 million project that would widen about 1.3 miles of the coastal highway from four lanes to six while crossing the environmentally sensitive Calera Creek, which supports habitat for endangered frogs and snakes. The project site sits between two traffic lights — about 2,300 feet north of Reina Del Mar Avenue to approximately 1,500 feet south of Fassler Avenue.
Community and environmental activists filed the suit last week alleging project officials have violated federal laws such as the Clean Water Act; National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA; the Federal Transportation Act; the Endangered Species Act and the Coastal Zone Management Act.
Local plaintiffs, Pacificans for a Scenic Coast and Pacificans for Highway 1 Alternatives, were joined by the national group the Center for Biological Diversity in filing the suit against state, county and federal authorities.
Caltrans, the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, city of Pacifica, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Highway Administration are named as defendants in the lawsuit seeking to halt the project.
“It will more than double the width of the highway just to add one extra lane on each side between these two traffic lights and it’s going to have tremendous environmental impacts. It’s going to impact endangered and threatened species, it’s going to impact wetlands, it’s going to affect coastal views, it’s going to put some businesses out of business,” said Peter Loeb with Pacificans for a Scenic Coast.
Caltrans approved the project and environmental impact report in late 2013 as it sought to alleviate congestion along the main coastal corridor.
According to Caltrans and a 2007 traffic study, nearly 45,800 vehicle trips are taken per day within the project zone and it’s anticipated to increase to 59,300 cars per day by 2035.
Widening the road would involve taking nearly 117,000 square feet of land through easements or right-of-way — which includes one occupied residence and two commercial properties — as well as building nearly 4,100 square feet of retaining walls, according to Caltrans.
The project would also require hillside excavations involving removal and disposal of nearly 3.7 million cubic feet of soil, according to the lawsuit.
“Caltrans is pushing a project that would needlessly damage scarce habitat for endangered San Francisco garter snakes and California red-legged frogs, without fully evaluating alternatives to dramatically widening Highway 1,” Jeff Miller with the Center for Biological Diversity wrote in a press release. “A more complete and honest evaluation of the project impacts is required under federal environmental protection laws.”
At the crux of their argument, the plaintiffs allege Caltrans should have thoroughly considered other options and Loeb noted the proposal includes an unnecessarily large landscaped median.
At minimum, one suggestion is to not include the large median between oncoming traffic that requires Caltrans to encroach on private property and environmentally sensitive habitat, Loeb said.
“There are a variety of other things that haven’t been seriously looked at and in essence, we have to get the proposed project off the table so that we can actually seriously look at other ways of addressing the problem without the horrific environmental impacts,” Loeb said.
Representatives from Caltrans and the San Mateo County Transit Authority said they could not comment on pending litigation.
According to Caltrans’ project report, it evaluated a variety of other project alternatives. One option outlined increasing public transportation, which would require an additional 88 buses per hour during morning commutes to achieve what widening the highway would.
The agency conducted an environmental impact report under the state’s California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, as well as an environmental assessment that led to finding there would be no significant impact under the National Environmental Policy Act, according to the report.
In the suit, the plaintiffs allege Caltrans failed to accurately disclose the impacts of the project on endangered species, that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife failed to ensure proper mitigation measures were in place and that the Army Corps of Engineers was complacent by not using its authority to enforce the Clean Water Act to ensure the project won’t jeopardize sensitive habitat.
The plaintiffs also claim that since the project’s initial proposal for which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a biological opinion supporting the work, Caltrans has substantially changed the project’s scope and a new review should be initiated.
The federal suit is the second time the project has been called into question as the Pacificans groups also filed a September 2013 claim in San Mateo County Superior Court.
In that case, the groups alleged Caltrans, SamTrans and the city of Pacifica violated state laws by not accurately describing the project during the CEQA environmental review.
In March, a judge issued a preliminary ruling favoring Caltrans and refusing to grant an injunction to prevent the project from proceeding.
Loeb said last week’s lawsuit was filed after several attorneys and the Center for Biological Diversity noted various federal laws were being violated.
“We’ve filed suit because we care about the character and environment of Pacifica, and this project is out of scale with Pacifica’s scenic nature,” Loeb said in a press release. “The Caltrans plan is overkill that will have potentially drastic environmental impacts; it won’t solve the traffic congestion problem nor does it fit with the character of Highway 1 in our community.”
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