A federal judge in San Francisco has ruled that Caltrans must obtain a further study of two imperiled species and consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before it can go ahead with a project to widen Highway 1 in Pacifica.
The Caltrans project would expand a 1.3-mile stretch of the highway in the southern part of Pacifica from four lanes to six, to reduce traffic congestion.
The two rare species in the area are the San Francisco garter snake, listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and the California red-legged frog, listed as threatened.
U.S. District Judge Vincent Chhabria issued the decision Friday in a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Pacificans for a Scenic Coast and Pacificans for Highway 1 Alternatives.
He said a biological opinion in which the Fish and Wildlife Service said the two species would not be jeopardized was flawed because it was based on inaccurate information provided by Caltrans.
The Fish and Wildlife opinion said the project’s destruction of habitat for the two species would be offset by permanent preservation of habitat on a 5.14-acre parcel of nearby land owned by the city.
But Chhabria said the Fish and Wildlife Service hadn’t been told that the city had already agreed to preserve that land as part of an agreement with the California Coastal Commission allowing it to build an adjacent wastewater treatment plan.
The preservation of the land was therefore not a “new benefit” to the two species, the judge said.
“Preservation of the 5.14-acre parcel was supposed to be a new, positive effect that the project would have on listed species and their habitat, to make up for the project’s other, negative effects,” Chhabria wrote.
The judge also said that a second mitigation proposed by Caltrans — enhancement of habitat in another nearby 5.46-acre parcel in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area — was “vague and speculative.”
He said Caltrans must obtain a new biological opinion from the Fish and Wildlife Service and consult with the service about the impact on the two species before proceeding with the road widening.
Chhabria turned down a request from the plaintiff groups for a preliminary injunction blocking the project, however.
He said work on the widening is not imminent because approval of several other agencies and funding from the state and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority is needed.
If Caltrans were to begin construction without obtaining a new biological opinion, the groups could then seek an injunction, he said.
Caltrans spokesman Myeast McCauley said, “Caltrans will be working with its project partners to discuss and determine options and next steps.”
He said agency officials are pleased that the judge rejected additional environmental claims in the conservation groups’ lawsuit.
Center for Biological Diversity spokesman Jeff Miller said, “The court got it right: Caltrans failed to honestly evaluate the impacts of the project on endangered snakes and frogs, and got caught trying to use an already protected parcel of land as supposed mitigation.”
“We’re hoping the agency gets the message that the community doesn’t want or need this wasteful and damaging highway-widening project,” Miller said.