Activists sue Caltrans over freeway flyovers

REGION — Two community groups have sued the California Department of Transportation for its approval of two flyovers connecting ramps between Interstate 5 and State Route 56 in Carmel Valley that have been in the works for 15 years.

Citizens for Sensible Traffic Planning and Citizens for a Responsible Caltrans are targeting the agency’s analysis of the project’s environmental impacts, which they said was flawed, as well as the project itself, which they said will dramatically increase noise and air pollution.

“Caltrans chose the loudest, tallest, most noxious and visually damaging plan it considered for this interchange very near the Torrey Pines Preserve and admits that the impacts to the public are significant,” said Brian Farmer of Citizens for Sensible Traffic Planning. “After getting input on the draft plan five years ago and hearing that the community strongly objects to the enormous concrete 100-foot-plus flyovers, Caltrans is rushing to approve its plan without addressing the legitimate concerns of the community.”

The lawsuits ask the court to order Caltrans to vacate its approval of the project and to stop any work toward completing the project. It also seeks to have Caltrans complete a full environmental review under the state environmental quality act in order to minimize environmental impacts, including impacts on noise, air quality and climate change.

Caltrans officials said a change in state law exempted the project from the state’s environmental quality act, but did not stop officials from thoroughly examining the project’s impacts before approving it. The state’s transportation agency has decided to defend itself against the claims. 

At the heart of the group’s claims is a decision by Caltrans to declare the projects exempt from the state environmental quality act. Caltrans said that while it was conducting the environmental impact report on the project, state lawmakers passed legislation that required a project known as the North Coastal Corridor Public Works Plan — which includes the connector ramps — be analyzed under the policies and framework of the California Coastal Act rather than the state’s environmental quality act. 

In practical terms, Caltrans officials said, the agency did not have to continue what is known as the “CEQA process.”

“Since Caltrans had already started the CEQA process, we felt that keeping the common format of the EIR was useful for a public disclosure and an overall environmental analysis standpoint,” Caltrans spokesman Hayden Manning said. “In essence we wanted to demonstrate to the public that even though CEQA no longer technically applied, we put the same level of effort, analysis and public disclosure into the decision making process as we would for any major project. That effort was in addition to the process required under the Coastal Act and the federally required (environmental) process.”

Caltrans, according to the lawsuits, has argued that the statute of limitations to contest the exemption came and went without any formal protest. The environmental groups, through their attorneys, have contested Caltrans’ assertion that the state environmental quality act doesn’t apply, and that the agency did not adequately notify the public of the exemption.

“Even in the face of widespread community concern that the project will dramatically increase air and noise pollution, Caltrans now claims that CEQA does not apply,” the groups said in a news release. “Instead, it asserts, erroneously, that the project is exempt from CEQA because of 2012 legislation that streamlined transportation projects along the North Coast Corridor in San Diego County. But that streamlining legislation applied to actions by the Coastal Commission, not Caltrans. No legislation authorizes Caltrans to approve this project without a thorough environmental review.” 

“It’s hard to draw any conclusion other than that Caltrans was trying to hide the ball from community members in how it approved this project,” noted Winter King, attorney with Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, LLP, who represents Citizens for Sensible Traffic Planning. “The agency changed its approval process mid-stream and then conveniently neglected to inform concerned community groups that it had dispensed with the environmental review process and was relying on an exemption from CEQA. It took a fair amount of detective work for my clients to figure out that the project had even been approved.”

The city of San Diego, the San Diego Association of Governments and Caltrans have been studying the I-5/SR 56 Interchange for more than 15 years, evaluating 22 different project alternatives since 2002.

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